Reviews

Lifting the Veil

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy counters George Bush's "confident" display with her own observations: "Now we've come back six years later," she narrates, "to ask if life for women in Afghanistan is any better in a liberated country."


Lifting the Veil

Airtime: various
Cast: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: CNN Special Investigations Unit
Network: CNN
US release date: 2007-09-15
Website
Trailer
Amazon
I am caged in this corner, full of melancholy and sorrow.

My wings are closed and I cannot fly.

I must wail because I'm an Afghan woman.

-- Nadia Anjuman

Early in Lifting the Veil, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy spots a woman sitting on a curb in Kabul. The woman is hunched over, dabbing at her eyes with her pale blue veil. Obaid-Chinoy decides to talk to her. She and her crew cross the street and sit down with the woman, to ask her name and how long she spends each day, begging. Bibi Gul tells her she begs every day, "from morning until evening." Looking defeated, especially when a group of young men gathers to taunt her, Gul says she's a war widow, one of more than a million in Afghanistan, Obaid-Chinoy adds. Without male relatives, unable to work because she is a woman, 40-year-old Gul, looks 20 years older when she removes her burqa at Obaid-Chinoy's request. Her daughters, aged 14 and 16, want to go to school but she can't afford the pencils and paper.

This is not the way it was supposed to be, Obaid-Chinoy says more than once during the documentary. Airing as part of CNN's Special Investigations Unit, the film is a dynamic follow-up to a film she made back in 2001, at the start of the U.S. invasion. Back then, despite decades of war and poverty exacerbated by the Taliban's oppressive rule, promises of freedom and aid brought hope. At the time of the invasion, the new film recalls, President Bush declared that women who were once "captives in their own homes" would now be "free." Obaid-Chinoy counters this "confident" display with her own observations: "Now we've come back six years later," she narrates, "to ask if life for women in Afghanistan is any better in a liberated country."

The answers are complicated, but one overwhelming truth is grim: this "newly democratic state" has not made life "better" for enough women, who still face conservative men, horrific poverty, and an often overwhelming sense of helplessness. Obaid-Chinoy, a documentary maker who was born in Karachi, looks beyond usual Western assumptions and determinedly pursues stories that take her off standard tracks. Charismatic and almost conspiratorial in her asides to the camera, Obaid-Chinoy's work refreshingly activist, in the sense that she doesn't stop at the first answer, but seeks out complications. She dons a burqa to sit on the street and beg with Gul for an afternoon, and listen to the verbal abuses hurled by passing men. At the end of he day Obaid-Chinoy turns to the camera and sighs. "Let's face it: this issue of the burqa is just the tip of the iceberg. Afghan women face far graver issues than whether to wear the burqa or not."

Issues like destitution, rape, disgrace, and frankly monstrous family members -- in-laws who beat them, husbands who terrorize them. Issues like lack of health care, due to underfunding and ignorance, as well as the fact that, as one doctor puts it, "It's mostly mother-in-laws and husbands involved in making family decisions," so that some 50 pregnant women die in Afghanistan every day (according to UNICEF). (For more on this topic, see the documentary Motherland Afghanistan.) Obaid-Chinoy visits a village hospital, where she sees rooms full of women who have tried to burn themselves to death. Their faces peeling and features deformed, the women she interviews seem frail and despondent. A doctor suggests that burning is a favored form of suicide because it's a "poor country, so kerosene is widely available." But Obaid-Chinoy has another idea. "I think these women wanted to make a point," she asserts, "They didn't want to die quietly, but in a way that let others know they suffered in life, a reflection of deep-seated issues in Afghan society that need to be addressed."

It's a grand assessment, but the documentary makes it seem simultaneously obvious and perceptive. Obaid-Chinoy puts together the pieces that too many journalists leave hanging apart, making an argument, a passionate argument, based on what she's seen. Still, she's less interested in self-promotion than in bringing her subjects' sagas into the foreground. It's not just that Hamid Karzai is having troubles coordinating his government or that warlords are in bed with the Taliban. It's that beautiful young Shahnaz was sold into marriage by her drug-addicted father when she was just seven years old. "I felt depressed when I found out," says Shanahz, now 14 and utterly polite. The camera cuts to her husband, skulking in the doorway, as Obaid-Chinoy speaks out on the girl's behalf: "It's difficult for us to talk to Shahnaz because her mother-in-law and her husband keep coming into the room."

This is Obaid-Chinoy's genius, the edge that makes her work both entertaining and astute. While the husband probably could care less that she's called him out -- in his world, she is a mere woman, after all -- she invites her viewers into the storytelling process, working with recalcitrant subjects and difficult truths. When Shahnaz admits that she too burned herself three years ago, Obaid-Chinoy asks to see her scars. She raises her pants leg to show painfully thin legs, covered with burn marks. After learning that Shahnaz wants to be able to go to school, Obaid-Chinoy concludes this segment by walking out of the village, past sheep and a fairground Ferris wheel, a little bit of absurdity plunked down inside the nightmare. "Often," she says as she walks, "child brides are little more than servants at home and virtual prisoners in marriage."

Those who do speak out, like the poet Nadia Anjuman, are also at risk; as Obaid-Chinoy reports, she studied literature in secret and published a book before she died at age 25. Obaid-Chinoy tracks down Nadia's husband, Farid, accused of her murder but never convicted released from jail after just two months. Though Nadia's brother says his family "forgave" Farid, "because of our religion," they remain distressed. For his part, Farid insists that the bruises on his wife's body were not causal in her death. Yes, he beat her that night, but she killed herself. "She was trying to put pressure on her family to make them love her more," he says, his hands suggesting he simply doens't understand it, but, oh well. "It's just something women do here."

"Just something women do here." Obaid-Chinoy doesn't believe it any more than you do, and her film makes clear all the ways that such self-justifying is wrong. But she never lets the West generally, or the U.S. more specifically, off the hook. This makes Lifting the Veil those documentaries that purport to be "objective." This film means to make you worry about the women you meet (even the young men who appear oblivious to the cruelties they inflict), and to make you mad that "billions of dollars in promised aid have failed to arrive or to reach those most in need."

"As a Muslim woman," Obaid-Chinoy says, "I know attitudes like these are not inherent in our culture, that there are places in the world where we can walk around freely." The film makes clear her feelings of oppression and frustration in Afghanistan, in close or canted frames and handheld footage of passersby staring at her, sans burqa. It also shows the shafts of hope that surprise and move her, including the father of an eight-year-old girl who saw her mother murdered six years ago. Though their village has no piped water, her father is proud that little Rukhsana is attending school, and hopes that one day she might "study to be a doctor or engineer." This from a guy who looks as old-school as any of the men Obaid-Chinoy interviews. He looks forward to a future beyond himself, one premised on his daughter's achievements.

"Afghanistan's problems were not fixed by the invasion," says Obaid-Chinoy. Lifting the Veil makes clear the unmet obligation of the invaders and the obstacles that lie ahead. It also argues, passionately and shrewdly, that the women of Afghanistan are more than ready to do their own work.

9

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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