In the opening sequences of Guiseppe Carrieri’s film we sweep along a broad Indian river while observing a boat with a girl dressed in a bright red sari. Soon words from the Talmud, the Jewish book of holy law, appear: «God counts the tears of women» and we are left in little doubt about the subject matter to come in Hanaa.
A timely contribution to the #MeToo debate that has convulsed American and European politics in the past year, Carrrieri’s film ties the stories of the lives of four young women around the world in India, Nigeria, Peru and Syria. They all share the same or similar name, but their differing experiences of gender discrimination vary.
The destiny of four women
«Religion comes before rationality,» the Indian girl says, quoting her grandmother. Superstition governs her life; a red flower that brought luck to her mother did not save her from her destiny – dead at an early age, as shown graphically in the film.
«Myths, superstitions, beliefs: the ways a patriarchal society imposes its will on young women.»
A Nigerian girl called Hana (the film’s title spelling reflects the slight variations in the names of its subjects) recalls her experiences at the hands of Islamic extremists, where she was renamed Selma and where every third girl died.
In Peru, Ana recalls the love she experienced with a young man until he disappeared when she fell pregnant. Her family accused her of being a whore and kicked her out of her home in a poor barrio. Now she walks the streets and sells her body to support her infant child, counting the seconds to ward off her fears of assault and robbery.
The films weaves its way to Syria, segueing from an Indian provincial radio station broadcast on the conflict to grainy videos of young girls aged 13-15 being interviewed about their backgrounds and marriage prospects. Ruined streets in Aleppo and missiles falling from night skies cut with images from a school classroom of young women, suggest the complex world young Syrian women grow up to negotiate. And then we are back in Peru again to pick up that thread.
Carrieri’s unhurried pace, slowly revealing the content and intent of his film, may not be for all audiences, but by going with the images and information like a stream of consciousness, one can allow the narrative to build, understanding that, essentially, the film is about the conflict between dreams and reality and the power of myths to influence behaviour.
«A Peruvian girl describes being asked for sex in return for a backstreet abortion.»
Apparently unconnected elements – close ups of a young Peruvian woman’s extended pregnant belly, moving smoothly through voice over («If you look too long at the moon you will fall in love with it») to Nigeria – begin to construct a universe in which we begin to understand how young women are programmed to be complicit in their own subjugation.
«You cannot do anything; your granddaughter’s destiny is written. I am only an instrument,» an Indian holy man tells the grandmother of the Indian girl, advising her that the girl must plunge herself into the waters of a holy river and then wrap herself in red.
Myths, superstitions, beliefs are the ways a patriarchal society imposes its will on young women. Only gradually is the viewer drawn into the inner world of the young women: in Peru Ana tearfully confesses her fears that she will become like her mother – abused and beaten by a violent man. And her heavily pregnant friend, with whom she shares a room, recalls when she – like Ana – was turned out of home. «Everything happened very fast, my parents told me not to come home anymore. And so I did.»
Rape and exploitation
Hanaa explores innocent and hope; betrayal and hardship. «I would like to see everything,» our Indian subject says as she talked with a young boy about how far one can see, and the deeper meaning is not lost: words of wisdom from the mouth of a girl barely more than a child.
«Marriage is the only way,» one Syrian mother says.
In Peru, Ana and her pregnant friend loll around on a bed talking about the forthcoming birth. In a threatening world they only have one another, Ana’s baby and the child to come. And yet despite the huge responsibilities they both will bear, their talk is that of young girls, giggling and joking about names for the baby.
Gradually we approach the darker experiences of the young women portrayed. A Nigerian girl describes in bleakly prosaic terms how she was raped by a member of Boko Haram. «He ordered me to take off my jacket and jeans… her forcibly threw me down. He took off his underpants and penetrated me…»
A Peruvian girl describes being asked for sex in return for a backstreet abortion (her second) when she was four months pregnant. «I took the operation in a garage.» She swallows, pauses and adds: «I felt like I would not survive. I saw him while he three the foetus in the garbage.»
Vitality in a bleak world
Poverty, youth (the subjects of the film are all aged 13-15) and powerlessness – all echo throughout the film. Our daughters need protection. «Marriage is the only way,» one Syrian mother says. In India, a girl little more than a child, draped in a red veil, is married to a man twice her age.
But though Hanaa is a film about a bleak world, it does not descend into despair, but somehow manages to celebrate the vitality of young women who against all odds retain an ability to live and laugh.