When the guy doing the pre-show intro of a festival flick precedes the screening by warning the audience that the ending "should come with Prozac", you know you're not in for an uplifting 90 or so minutes. Actually, I had read the program description of Passion, which was having its North American premiere here in Seattle in the closing days of the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival (an event, by the way, that was so packed with good films, I'm going to have to clear more room off my calendar for it next year), and I knew the topic was honor killings, so I figured going in it wasn't going to have a cheery ending. What I didn't know going in was that the film's director, Mohamed Malas, had to shoot his film in Paris, because the Syrian government wouldn't let him shoot there. The film has been banned in Syria as well, so it won't be seen there, either. Writer-director Malas was inspired to write the film after reading a snippet in a Syrian paper about a woman who was slain by her uncle, two cousins and two brothers in an "honor killing" because she had developed a passion for the songs of Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum.
Passion tells the tale of Imane, a 30-something woman from a traditional Muslim family who married the man she loved against the wishes of her family, who wanted her to wed her cousin. Imane's husband, Adnane, works as a civil servant and also drives a cab to earn enough money to decently support his wife and children. As the film opens, Imane is speaking in voice-over to her absent brother Rachid, who we soon come to understand has been held in prison for a decade for being an activist against the government. Imane is deeply sorrowful over her brother's imprisonment, and she and her husband have raised Rachid's children, Malek and Joumana, along with their own two children, since Rachid was imprisoned.
One night, Imane's uncle, Abou Sobhi, an aged ex-military colonel kicked out of service due to Rachid's political activities, shows up and forcibly removes Joumana from Imane's home, refusing to tell Imane anything other than that her father's house is a better place for Joumana to live. Abou Sobhi is the younger brother of Imane's father, Abou Rachid, but due to her father's illness and his eldest son's imprisonment, Abou Sobhi has ascended to the top of the family's patriarchy. Abou Sobhi, who has deteriorated mentally since being forced out of the military (and who, really, probably was never really that nice a guy to begin with), takes advantage of his situation by encouraging the men of the family to take greater charge of their households and enforce his particular interpretation of fundamentalist Islam, which seems to pretty much be anything in the Koran he can find to justify brutally turning women into the obedient slaves of men and to laying down the familial law about anything he doesn't like. Unfortunately for Imane, he doesn't like her, or her husband, who is "too interested in politics."
Imane can't figure out why her uncle and her family have turned against her, and neither can we; she is a loving mother, heart torn out by the removal of Joumana, who she considers a daughter, from her home. She is a devoted wife, tenderly caring for her husband, who just as clearly adores her. Their children are well-cared for and happy. What, then, is Imane's sin? Singing. Imane loves music, in particular the music of singer Kalsoum. She has a beautiful voice, and sings all the time as she goes about her daily life, and records tapes to be smuggled to Rachid in prison. Joumana, too, loves to sing, and often sings along with her Auntie as they go about their chores. When Imane stops into a cassette store to find another tape by Oum Kalsoum, she chances to meet a legendary singer, Madame Badia, who, she learns, sang at her own mother's wedding. All this wonderful music fills Imane with a passion and vibrancy for life that radiates from her in spite of the constant undercurrent of sorrow about her brother's imprisonment.
The challenge in watching a film like Passion, as in watching a film about any kind of social injustice, is in separating the perpetrators of the act from the religion or culture that makes them possible. Passion is not an indictment of Islam by any means; on the contrary, it shows many positive aspects of Islamic life in Syria. Passion is an indictment of oppression and terrorism, of religion taken beyond the realm of spirituality and into a fervor that justifies the taking of a life because one man believes a woman in his family has dishonored the family name.
Although you can't blame Islamic culture as a whole for honor killings, any more than you can blame Christianity as a whole for crimes committed in the name of Christianity, Passion does offer a mild rebuke in the way neighbors and passersby shutter out "family matters" -- even those involving murder. But really, are we in the West any different? Do we speak out when we see a child being treated roughly in a public place, or do we bite our tongues while inwardly lamenting our unwillingness to intervene in "somebody else's business?" If we are to judge not lest we be judged, as a certain book suggests, a film like Passion forces us to look not only at the factors that lead to and condone honor killings of Muslim women, but at the hypocrisies within our own lives and cultures. Honor killing is a horrible crime against women, and there are aspects of Islam that make it acceptable, under certain interpretations, to justify the abuse and even murder of women. But so does Christianity, if you literally interpret much of the Old Testament.
Passion is a tragic tale, based on the little known about the real woman who died, whose death was deemed worthy of a mere snippet in the newspaper. The importance of films like Passion is not how they illuminate the differences between "us" and "them" (whoever "us" and "them" is being ever fluid and changing depending on the interpretation and point of view). Their real value lies in the spaces where we can see the similarities, see the injustices that cross political and cultural boundaries.