The story of a widow who pretends she’s pregnant with a boy in order to keep a roof over her head sounds like the basis for some sort of black, The Handmaid’s Tale-inspired comedy set in a bleak dystopian future. But in Amjad Al-Rasheed’s Jordanian drama Inshallah A Boy — bowing in the Cannes Critics’ Week — it’s much closer to home.
Delving into a rather thorny issue in the Arab world, the film follows Nawal, a mother and housewife whose husband suddenly dies unexpectedly, pitting her and her daughter against Jordan’s archaic patriarchal inheritance laws. Simply put, because Nawal doesn’t have a son, her husband’s family is entitled to most of her belongings, including her home (which she paid for herself).
Al-Rasheed, who makes his feature debut, says he was inspired by a very close relative who faced the same situation.
“She dedicated her life to the service of her family, her daughter and husband, and when she bought a house with her own money her husband asked her to transfer the deeds into his name, because it’s considered shameful for a man to live in a woman’s house,” he says. When her husband died, his family showed up and explained to their daughter-in-law that they would “allow” her to live in the house.
It was this sentence that motivated the filmmaker to write the story and try to answer several big questions. “What if they hadn’t said this?” What are her options? What if she said no? And is it logical that we are ruled by a law that was created 1,400 years ago?”
In researching the idea, which was spread over the best part of a decade, Al-Rasheed says he spoke to numerous women and discovered a common thread linking them all. “They all felt they were the weakest link, and that at the end of the day, the law simply does not support them,” he says, adding that while the inheritance law may not be widely known about, it’s still commonplace around much of the region (the film even inspired one of its own crew members to quickly change his will to protect his children).
There’s been much talk of female empowerment in the Middle East over recent years, especially in countries such as Saudi Arabia which famously lifted a ban on women driving and eliminating some of the restrictions that had been imposed through its system of male guardianship. But for all the headlines, the societies are still extremely male-dominated.
“Maybe there have been some movements, but it still needs a lot of work,” says Al-Rasheed. “And it needs to be through education and through the new generation, and how we treat each other in general, not only women.”
This is where Inshallah a Boy (which translates as ‘God Be Willing, a Boy’) steps in, with the director saying his sole aim is to “push people to think and rethink what has been normalized for so many years,” adding he prefers films that “start after I leave the theater and stay with me.”
While Al-Rasheed may hope to quietly and creatively change the course of history with his filmInshallah a Boy has already made history itself, becoming the first Jordanian title selected for Cannes. This achievement may sound surprising given the amount of movie-making activity in the country, which for decades has been the region’s prime go-to location for big Hollywood blockbusters, dating back to Lawrence of Arabia and more recently including the likes of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian and both chapters of Dune.
But Al-Rasheed notes that, while Jordan may boast a highly experienced and much-sought-after crew, it still doesn’t have a film industry to call its own.
“We’re a small community, and we probably make a good film, one that we take to a festival, every four or five years,” he says. This infrequent nature of local filmmaking actually benefitted Al-Rasheed’s production. The eruption of Saudi Arabia’s nascent film industry has seen much of Jordan’s crew lured across the border, but the director says because his was a homegrown project, it had a special magnetic appeal.
“Because it was a Jordanian movie, everybody wanted to work on it,” he says. “I can’t express how amazing the crew has been, because even if they had the opportunity to work on a foreign film or a film in Saudi Arabia for more money, they preferred to work on a Jordanian movie. Because again, it only happens every five years, and it’s the opportunity for us to create and do something that we own.”
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