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Islamic women's sex and power

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The Source (M) Director: Radu Mihaileanu. Starring: Leïla Bekhti, Hafsia Herzi, Biyouna, Saleh Bakri. 131 minutes

In an early scene, liberal leaning schoolteacher Sami (Bakri) presents his beautiful young wife Leila (Bekhti) with a copy of The Thousand and One Nights.

It's a knowingly symbolic gesture. The couple belongs to a patriarchal Islamic community in a remote North African village, where Leila has recently instigated a kind of feminist stand against the local men. Given the Nights' framing narrative about a bride who gains power over her ruthless husband through storytelling, the gift represents a nod from Sami to Leila's own act of self-empowerment.

It is also a perhaps hopeful wink from director and co-writer Mihaileanu that his film can be seen as a modern day Arabian fable, to be read in the context of the Arabian Spring movement for democracy and modernity. To this end The Source is inspirited by folk songs and dance sequences featuring 'girl power' protest lyrics, which bat against other folk songs celebrating a more subservient feminine role.

The key issue, as far as the women are concerned, is water. The region is experiencing drought, and the village is yet to be plumbed for running water. The women are expected by tradition to fetch water from a source outside the village, which is a genuinely perilous task: Leila's outrage is sparked by what is the latest of many miscarriages suffered on the craggy incline by the village's women.

Led by Leila and feisty widow Old Rifle (Biyouna) — who, having been married off at 14 and raped by her husband on their wedding night, bears long-held disdain for the patriarchy — the women declare a love strike: to withhold sex from their husbands until they pipe water to the village.

This is an act of self-empowerment for the women, but it has its hardships. One woman is raped by her husband and, when she adopts non-violent strategies to repel his forceful advances, she is beaten for her recalcitrance. Even Leila's marriage to the sympathetic Sami is tested by the social and family pressures that come to bear on him as the husband of the ringleader.

The strike is certainly disruptive. But for the women it's the only way they can see to earn the respect and consideration that their humanity — not just their gender — demands.

The film's pointed feminist message (the original title was La Source Des Femmes, or The Source Of Women) is tempered by humour. Consider the sight of Old Rifle gossiping on a mobile phone while sitting side saddle on a plodding mule. Cut to a wide shot of the open desert landscape that she is traversing, as she suddenly starts yelling 'Hello? Hello?' repeatedly into the phone. ‘No signal!' she finally curses.

The incongruity of the scene also exemplifies the tendrils of modernity that have entered village life. This is a consistent theme in The Source; in the same way that Leila is seen to have ‘blown in' from more free-thinking regions and presumed to challenge their traditions, the winds of technological change bring with them new possibilities as well as new anxieties.

A politician warns Sami that once the women have running water and electricity, the next thing they'll be asking for is washing machines. The remark is deliberately sexist, said with an eye-rolling 'there's just no pleasing women' tone. But at the same time it reflects the anxiety that old ways and methods can be supplanted by modernisation, and that this process can involve grief and anguish.

 If The Source is a fable, its power is limited. Leila's sister-in-law Esmeralda (Herzi) is enamoured to Mexican soap operas; and this is as apt an intertextual reference for the film as The Thousand and One Nights. Notably, a plot thread involving a former flame of Leila's, Soufiane (Akhmiss), who turns up to try to reclaim her love, is one of several schmaltzy subplots that merely swell the running time.

WIN: In conjunction with International Women’s Day, Madman is offering Eureka Street readers the opportunity to attend a special advance screening of The Source on Tuesday 28 February, 6.30 pm at Melbourne's Cinema Nova in Carlton. For your chance to win a double pass, email us with the code word WOMEN in the subject line and your full name in the body of the email.

The Source opens 8 March at Nova and is slated for a mid-year DVD release through Madman.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

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Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Source, Islam, Feminism



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Existing comments

This film sounds too grim; I used to watch things like this, but no more. I know some places are hell for women and really don't want to see that enacted. I think I'll just stay home and play with my washing machine.

Penelope | 24 February 2012  

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