Nafisa (Mihad Murtada) is a teenage girl in a Sudanese village who, despite her crush on someone else – is facing an arranged marriage thanks to her parents to Nadir (Mohammed Magdi Hassan). Her grandmother, the powerful matriarch Al-Sit (Rabeha Mohammed Mahmoud), has her own plans for Nafisa’s future.
Writer-Director Suzannah Mirghani perfectly encapsulates the current situation that Sudan finds itself in and makes our lead Nafisa a surrogate for her country. Sudan has found itself in a tug of war with people coming to its land and wanting to modernise it, but for a price, whereas the alternative is the ancient ways of its past who want to keep everything as it is.
Al-Sit has a lightness that you would not really expect, considering its heavy themes, but as we come to the ending moments, we are given the opportunity to smile and allow some hope to reside within us for Nafisa. Mirghani makes sure to bring forward the awkwardness of such meetings like the one Nadir has with Nafisa’s parents and with Al-Sit. Most importantly, however, you are given ample opportunities to feel for all of the characters in the film. You understand why the parents would want their daughter to marry someone who has found success and to move and live a life they think she deserves.
You see even how Nadir wants to help his families for the community; while yes, he is there as an opportunist, you suspect he is at least willing to give back. Then we have Al-Sit herself; we sense she is afraid of the changes being presented to her; she is from another time, one that wants the ways of her people to continue. Above all else, she feels that her way is the correct and only way, no matter how much the modern world knocks on her door. Finally, we have Nafisa, who you continually just feel for as she silently listens to everyone’s conversation, never getting a moment to be herself around her family. Only in the opening and the closing scenes do we see the real her and goodness does she deserve happiness.
The well-dressed Nadir, whose family welcomed the British in the early 20th century and moved to Doha to make their fortune, returns not only for Nafisa’s hand in marriage but to also “help” his ancestors community make money from their cotton fields. He and his family see a revenue stream and want to modernise this small part of Sudan; he talks to people about old train tracks and to Nafisa’s father about the possibilities of it all. It seems oh so tempting to help make everyone’s lives in the village more comfortable. Instead of handpicking the cotton, machines could do it; electricity could run without problems. But, as he and the audience soon find out, simply turning up with chocolates and a polyester suit will not win you over with everyone.
Al-Sit has no time for such modernisation. She believes in her people’s ways that have been carried forth for generations. She is the one who decides which girl marries in her family; that has been the way and will continue to be the way if she is around. She sees through Nadir’s attempts of flattery and, with some pointed questions, realises that not only is he a bad match for her granddaughter, but one for her community.
Nafisa is stuck between a rock and a hard place, she sees all this newness, and you can see she is lured slightly by it. However, there is an issue; she doesn’t want her parents nor her grandmother to choose her husband; she would rather have her own choice. Like the people of Sudan, Nafisa wants to make their own path in this world, and for that, there is a big challenge ahead, but if Nafisa can do the impossible in her village, in time, hopefully, Sudan can too.
With strong performances and visuals throughout, we are left with a beautiful film that leaves its mark.
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