About 111 Girls (2012) — Image via globalfilm.org

About 111 Girls

Directed by Nahid Ghobadi & Bijan Zamanpira (2012)

Nahid Ghobadi’s and Bijan Zamanpira’s About 111 Girls (Darbare 111 Dokhtar) is bookended by a close-up shot of a young woman’s face wearing an inscrutable expression, and any hope the viewer may have of gaining clearer insight into this woman’s thoughts ultimately remains unfulfilled. Which isn’t to say that the film is unsatisfying. On the contrary, the story it tells of Nezom Donyadideh (Reza Behboodi), a representative of the Iranian president; his driver, Sadeghi (Amin Sadeghi); and his young guide, Ahorra (Mehdi Saki), driving to Kurdistan in an attempt to prevent the mass suicide of one hundred and eleven Kurdish women makes for an engaging quest that is at turns absurdist, frustrating, comical, and heartbreaking.

Donyadideh is acting upon orders from the Iranian president, who is responding to a letter sent from the women, who claim that conflicts with Iraq, Iran, and Turkey – as well as hazardous working and living conditions and a general lack of opportunity – have left a shortage of marriageable men in Kurdistan. Apparently, past letters have been ignored, and Donyadideh now has forty-eight hours to locate the women and prevent them for carrying out their plan to end their lives.

Of the three traveling companions, Ahorra, a Kurdish child, is able to move the most fluently through a wide variety of social situations, partially because he seems to have “uncles” in every village the trio passes through. (It is unclear if these men are biologically related to the boy, but they treat him with affection nonetheless.) Sadeghi also has a personal stake in finding the women, as he believes that his girlfriend is among them, and indeed he interacts with the people they meet as they travel through Kurdistan much more freely than Donyadideh, who, as the presidential representative, is closely aligned with the political power structures of Tehran. For this reason, it is probably no accident that Ahorra and Sadeghi gather more usable information about the women’s whereabouts than Donyadideh is able to procure.

About 111 Girls (2012) — Image via globalfilm.orgAs Donyadideh travels through Kurdistan, he is consistently confounded and disheartened by what he witnesses: policemen who demand bribes, hostile villagers who ask why their farms are still full of landmines despite government promises to remove them, schools without teachers, children who tear pages from their books to roll into cigarettes, and young boys who shoot the tires of passing cars so that their family can generate income by providing new tires to otherwise out-of-luck motorists. In a particularly disturbing scene, Donyadideh uses his political clout to have a journalist who is attempting to cover the potential mass suicide arrested in the name of avoiding public panic, something that may already be unavoidable based on the buzz created by Facebook and the release of a video of the women kneeling, saying their names, and preparing to die.

Donyadideh’s inability to embrace or even fully process what he clearly considers to be the backwardness of the region hinders his search for the women and also leads to strained and awkward interactions with the locals, even when he tries his best to be diplomatic. We see his difficulty adapting to village customs when his car breaks down and one of Ahorra’s “uncles” offers Donyadideh shelter for the night, telling him, “my house is your house,” to which he stiffly replies that he would prefer to sleep at the school since it is “state property.”

In what seems like a particularly striking visual metaphor of Donyadideh’s, and, by extension, the Iranian government’s ineffectuality in addressing the needs of their Kurdish citizens, in the opening minutes of the film we are introduced to a man who has been accused of adultery, crying while being detained by policemen in the middle of a barren field as his village decides whether or not he will be stoned. In a stroke of good fortune, the alleged adulterer manages to escape his captors, but his getaway is greatly impaired by the bag that has been placed over his head. He reappears several times throughout the film, still wearing his bag and often injuring himself as a result, although not enough to deter him from his dogged determination to both escape the policemen and find his girlfriend, who he believes is one of the one hundred and eleven. This unfortunate fellow manages to elicit compassion in the viewer, serve as comic relief, and act as a symbol of the bumbling blindness of both the Iranian and Turkish officials who are meant to save the Kurdish women.

Despite this rather unflattering initial portrayal of Donyadideh, one of the main trajectories of the film focuses on his evolving realization of how the Iranian government has failed the Kurdish people, and his attempt to find the women and hopefully prevent them from committing suicide, while not undoing or rectifying these past mistakes, seems to be, for him, a small yet concrete way that he can personally have a positive impact on the lives of those living in Kurdistan. We see his personal commitment to this cause when he angrily rejects a government plot to stage one hundred and eleven weddings so that political leaders can tell the public that the women have found husbands and no longer need to end their lives. Donyadideh, detecting that the plan is merely a falsehood constructed to calm the ire of public opinion, exposes the counterfeit brides as veiled men and suffers a night in chains as a result. While this scene does not excuse his earlier abuse of the journalist, it does show the ideological shift he has undergone in that now he is willing to risk himself in order to expose both the suicide plot and governmental corruption whereas before he behaved immorally in an attempt to keep the story under wraps.

About 111 Girls (2012) — Image via globalfilm.orgWhile the film is exquisitely shot and emotionally challenging, a potential criticism could stem from the many shots of weathered and sad-eyed people, many elderly and very young, that can at times veer towards romanticizing the supposedly inherent nobility of impoverished peasant life. Just as Donyadideh is receiving a firsthand education about the often harsh realities of Kurdish existence, the viewer can at times feel like a voyeuristic tourist invited to take a glimpse at the exhaustion and poverty of people who function as symbols first and characters second.

Carrying the heaviest symbolic burden in the film are the one hundred and eleven women, who, in a plot at least as old as Aristophanes, are using their bodies as a means of political protest. But whereas the women of Lysistrata merely withhold sex as a means of protesting the war that is killing their men, the women in About 111 Girls are planning to obliterate themselves, meaning that they will have no opportunity to benefit from any sort of change their collective action might bring about. It is undeniable that the one hundred and eleven women wield power in this film – the power to make others talk, react, perhaps even think – but the cost of this power is too high and is destined to be short-lived. Certainly, the scenario in which women either choose or are asked to sacrifice themselves in order to guard the political health and morality of their country or people is, with good reason, a trope that has had many postcolonialist thinkers wringing their hand for decades, and although this film seems aware of this troubling pattern, it by no means avoids it.

For this reason, it is unfortunate that, besides the initial letter threatening suicide (read out loud by men), we don’t actually get to hear any of the one hundred and eleven women speak. This isn’t the case for all women in the film; speechlessness seems reserved only for those who are planning to die. What is both interesting and frustrating is that when Donyadideh does interact with the women he meets on his journey, they prove universally helpful and astute, much more so than the many corrupt and violent men he encounters. The mother of one of the potential suicide victims speaks passionately about why she endorses her daughter’s decision given the life she will be asked to lead if she remains alive. The woman’s younger daughter speaks eloquently about the statement being made by her older sister and her companions, making it clear that the mass suicide is motivated much less by the shortage of marriageable men and more by the desire to protest centuries of voicelessness in the face of oppression from both external enemies and from the larger Kurdish community. Similarly, a woman points Donyadideh and his companions to the cliff where the women are poised to jump and encourages them to hurry in their attempt to intervene. In the interest in avoiding spoilers, I will refrain from mentioning if the women do indeed follow through on their suicidal plans, but suffice it to say that the seconds in the film where Donyadideh and Sadeghi sprint to the top of the cliff are among the most tense and compelling in the film.

In a film centered upon not just one or two but one hundred and eleven characters who have decided that their situations are desperate and irredeemable enough to end their lives, the question of what could have been done to avoid this outcome is implicitly raised. One can’t help but think that more insight could have been found had we had more access to the women’s thoughts and experiences; however, we join them too late in their journey for this type of understanding to be ours. Like the lovely woman whose eyes greet us at the beginning of the film and bid us farewell at the end, most of the women in About 111 Girls remain mysteries, enigmas whose power lies in their indecipherability. This leads to the feeling that, no matter what these women may have had to say, their words could never hold power as potent as their dead bodies.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.