“Rehana Maryam Noor” is a tough act to watch. The Bangladesh’s own MeToo narrative centers on one perpetrator and fixates closely on a singular survivor and witness. While other similar narratives have tackled the subject with a blast of female empowerment (2019’s “Bombshell”) and sometimes ruthless malevolence and revenge (2018’s “Revenge” and 2019’s “Promising Young Woman”), “Rehana” examines the impact of sexual abuse through the lens of the witness rather than the victim.
It is a film that wants us to justify that witnessing abuse carries the same risk of harm as experiencing it directly – leaving the protagonist to bear the weight of fulfilling a just cause.
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A growing sense of disquiet straggles over Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s second feature, which tallies the life of the titular Dr. Rehana Maryam Noor (Azmeri Haque Badhon in her excellent debut feature), a young assistant professor of medicine and a widow with a first-grade daughter. In much of the film, she is consistently on the phone, making sure her daughter is well taken care of and supporting her sick parents and unemployed brother. She constantly looks agonized walking down the campus hallways. Her face is a stone façade against the world. She barely cracks a smile except when she engages in one mother-child playful moment after knowing the harsh truth that her daughter is also a bully victim by her male peer at school.
An austere woman of uptight and unquestioned moral rectitude, Rehana uncompromisingly expels a student for cheating that involves a few scribbled notes on the back of a ruler during a med exam. When she chances upon a fellow professor (Kazi Sami Hassan) sexually assaulting a female student, she hunts him like a prowling hungry lioness. In the face of adversities, she brazens it out and refuses to look the opposite direction.
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“Rehana Maryam Noor” is a film that does claustrophobia just right. The campus hallways create an intricate maze-like set piece as if Rehana navigated a labyrinth. In one particular moment when she gets stuck in trying to open a jammed door, she knocks loudly at the door as if she had a fear of a closed-in place from which escape would be difficult or impossible. That sense becomes literally obvious when she is locked inside the campus during a student riot as the aftermath of her academic misconduct. The office hallways seem more like a penitentiary than a workplace, with Rehana being the workplace prisoner.
Within this labyrinthic sense, Rehana feels ‘locked’ and ‘alienated’ by the system –the excessively patriarchal Bangladeshi society and the campus institutional system (ironically run by a female principal) in order to preserve an undeserved reputation for excellence. When she seeks help from the authority, she is ineffectually advised to remain silent – a token that it is not the individual, but the makeup of an authority structure surrounding her exerts the most profound impact on perpetuating sexual harassment, or conversely, preventing it.
Working specifically on the blue shades, director Saad exudes both a melancholic mood and a haunting sense of the whole narrative. He frames Rehana’s overbearing anguish at a distance, putting her in shadows or placing her over a large building window where she’s staring out at the gloomy raindrops with her hands reaching for the top as if she were reaching out for help.
There’s no doubt that “Rehana Maryam Noor” is installed within the dilemma between acknowledging women’s agency and avoiding victim-blaming. “They will blame me, I am a girl,” Annie confides to Rehana, knowing that coming forward and making a report will only make things worse for herself. The film exposes and admonishes female empowerment that idealizes women-stick-together propaganda, or perhaps victims-stick-together agenda. (I could analyze this more, but it will spoil the film.)
Midway through “Rehana Maryam Noor”, I got a wee bit overenthusiastic. There were moments in the film where I covered my eyes, my jaw dropped a little, and stared at the screen in strong exasperation. It ‘slapped’ me in a sense that the film was nauseating with displays of humanity’s darkest impulses that were so uncomfortable I couldn’t deal with the embarrassment.
“Rehana Maryam Noor” is the only Bangladeshi film submitted at the 94th Academy Awards. It hits theaters earlier this November.