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The Source: A Beautiful Film for Anyone to See

The Source depicts the women's struggle as a righteous cause that nevertheless often breaks the hearts it touches.

When the last scene of the The Source faded from the screen, Jim said simply:  “Five stars.”  And I agreed.

This gorgeous film, directed by Radu Mihăileanu and based on a real situation he observed in a small North African village, tells the story of a group of women who go on “love strike” in order to persuade their men to pipe water from the mountaintop to a place where they might more safely travel.

This movie is not by any means a cliché nor an exercise in propaganda.  Very much the contrary.  In addition to a compelling story and lovely cinematography, it has distinctive characters and as much humor as pathos.  It shows the struggle of Muslim women (and men) to preserve the best of their traditions while moving on from crippling past practices.  And it does so in a way that is compassionate and fully human.

Most important, the film shows the cause of women as it manifests on the ground everywhere:  a righteous struggle, but one that breaks the hearts and tests the strengths of everyone it touches, including its most passionate proponents.  The painful conversations these men and women have as they try to negotiate their roles echoes, in essence, many other scraps of talk heard around the world when the expectations of gender are challenged.

The film also illustrates very plainly a situation that I have seen in many developing countries, not just Muslim nations.  In traditional societies I myself have visited and worked in, females are given to men of their father’s choice right after menarche.  They become workhorses whose feelings are not considered and who must provide sex on demand.  If they resist, they are beaten–or “repudiated,” as is the term in this film, which essentially means they are put out to starve.  In other words, the traditional form of “marriage” is difficult to separate from legal definitions of “slavery.”  Force, restraint, dehumanization, and the threat of violence pervade the entire arrangement, as one human being is used for the pleasures and profits of another.  This kind of marriage is a long, long way from the loving ideal of Western societies, but it is the norm in many, if not most, places.

In this film, the central couple were put together by their parents, but have come to love each other deeply.  In contrast, the couples around them, especially the older ones, live in homes characterized by force, bitterness, or grim resignation. The heroine, played with crushing beauty by Leila Bekhti, has been taught to read by her schoolteacher husband.  He, like a few of the other younger husbands, has been exposed to the new modern ways.  He supports his wife, encouraging her to fight for herself and the other women.  Yet the turmoil that the strike produces in the village rips their souls and strains their relationship to the breaking point.  In the meantime, the surrounding characters, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, discuss the situation in fragments of dialog that capture the understandings and experiences of the group, from personal life stories to fragments of hadith. Importantly, several male characters, including the imam, are sympathetic, and some of the female characters, especially (predictably) the mother-in-law, are not. But most are just afraid–fearful of what will happen if tradition breaks down, scared of the emotional intensity building around them, and, for the women, terrified of the violence or exclusion that may follow from resistance.

It is a moving drama and, I think, would be both enjoyable and instructive for just about anyone.


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