Quest for Honor features interviews with frightened, resolute, and guilty subjects, who hold that honor killing is a matter of dignity and tradition, unchangeable.
"I've come for your opinion as an official," Runak Faraj tells Ali Hama Waso. He's the mayor of Rania, in the Sulaimaniya province of Kurdistan, and she's investigating so-called honor-killings. "There is a large number of women killed here," she begins. He looks at her from across his wide wooden desk, toys with his plastic water bottle. This is the case throughout Kurdistan, he says warily, and the number hasn't increased. Besides, men aren't responsible for women's suicides, "women burning themselves or throwing themselves in the lake." Faraj listens quietly, as if anticipating what's coming next.
The trouble is not Kurdish men or cultural expectations, the mayor says slowly. "Europe did not get where it is today easily. Our sons and daughters watch satellite TV," he notes, "They see a society that has gone through many stages." Advised that it might be better for the government to shelter women and help to educate the public during this "stage" in Kurdistan, instead of assessing their murders, he has an answer. "Certainly it would be better. These things must be done step by step. Everything must be achieved in its own time."
Waso, as it turns out, is one of the most forward-looking interviewees in Quest for Honor. More often, Faraj and other investigators meet with frightened, resolute, and guilty subjects, who hold that honor killing is a matter of dignity and tradition, unchangeable. Nevertheless, Faraj persists, working through the Women's Media Center in Sulaimaniyah, now aligned with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), to bring expose violence against women, prosecute offenders, and so, change minds and save lives.
As Mary Ann Smothers Bruni's film tracks Faraj's efforts, it underscores the paradox that drives honor killing in Kurdistan (and, as Waso remarks, elsewhere). Even as honor killing is no longer technically legal (killing a woman, Faraj points out, is now "killing a human being"), those who hold to the tradition now reject the state apparatus that no longer supports their belief. So, Faraj finds in one case, a woman's murder can only be investigated if her family brings charges, but if the family (or one member) is culpable, they are unlikely to take that first step.
The film takes up several cases to illustrate the insidious permutations of "honor" in practice. The Asuda safe house shooting was a "wake up call," says Runak Rauf, director of the Women's Media Center in Sulaimaniyah, because a recently arrived resident, Sefin, is shot through a window. Though she identifies her attackers -- including her brother-in-law, Regr -- his story conflicts with hers. When journalist Lawen Azad Sagerman interviews him, Regr insists that it is honorable to kill a woman who has "cheated" (he says Sefin has used a mobile phone "behind her husband's back") but won't confess to the crime. Sagerman's face fills the frame as he talks, her sense of horror subtly visible. "Should I do nothing if a stranger comes to my brother's bed?" he asks, apparently rhetorically. "But if it wasn’t me, why should I confess?" Worse, in his mind, she has gone to the safe house to escape her husband's abuse: "Her brothers are cowards," he asserts, "Their sister went to a women's center. Those centers make problems worse. If her brothers were real men, they would demand that she not go to that center."
His calculating elucidation reveals the increasing convolutions of "honor," as families define it secretly, find dishonor in not acting and honor in lying. The situation for women is, perhaps predictably, even more tortuous: often married to men when the girls are just children, they feel silenced and powerless within an endless system. When Faraj interviews the family of a dead woman, Nesrin, her brother-in-law insists he has "no information" on her murder (she was shot with a Kalashnikov and left on a desert roadside). But his wife, her face worn and hard, provides context: "Every day thousands of women are murdered. They don’t kill women for no reason. I do nothing wrong, so neither my son nor my husband are going to kill me. Everyone wants to preserve his honor. A real woman has to love her honor."
When Faraj asks to interview Nerin's children, now being raised by her sister-in-law, the young daughter insists she doesn't miss her mother. "She left us to go with other men," the girl cries, admitting in the next breath -- as the sister-in-law looms large and dark in the frame -- that she sometimes dreams Nesrin "hugs and kisses us." The girl, like her brothers, is told their mother is the dishonorable one, that they must reject her very memory. When she hears this story later, Rauf laments the child's plight: "If your mother were good, she wouldn't have been killed. It's not over just because she was killed. They will destroy the children."
This and other stories in Quest for Honor are variously daunting. And repeatedly, Bruni, a photographer, composes resonant images -- harsh landscapes, close looks at faces filled with fear, narrow doorways framing resilient figures. Nesrin's brother-in-law stands left of center, his arms out as he protests not just his innocence, but also his righteousness. "A man loses his respect if he loses his honor." His circular logic exacts an unfathomable cost, embodied in a young woman who describes the fate she faced when her family found her one night she went out with her boyfriend. "They beat me," she says, her face taut and pale. "They planned to tie me to cinderblocks, put me in a sack and throw me in the river to drown."
Her fear is palpable, but her situation is not unique. The CNN report that opens the film offers a cell phone video of a woman being killed in Iraq, suggesting that visual exposure is one route to change, and that the U.S. is, as Waso says, not like Iraq. At its end, however, the documentary notes, "Domestic violence kills four women every day in the U.S.A." Their stories don’t make headlines on CNN.