Sitara: Let Girls Dream

When the premise of the Sitara: Let Girls Dream, a 15-minute animated short film from two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy initially came out, it evoked an audible groan from this reviewer.

Boy, was I wrong.

Sitara is a dialogue-less, tonally perfect, subtly handled, painful story of a young schoolgirl from a lower middle-class family in old Lahore. The girl (called Pari in the press material) has a sensible mother, a high-spirited younger sister named Mehr, and a brother who is doted upon by their overly ominous-looking, imposingly-built father (the character design is right on the money).

Pari has ambitions to become a pilot. In her free-time, she flies paper planes with Mehr. Her dreams, though, are unceremoniously cut down when her father comes home with a box of mithai [sweets].

Barely a high-schooler at 14 years of age, Pari will soon be married off to a gruff older man … just like her mother.

Obaid-Chinoy’s film does not paint villains, nor does it turn into a heavy-handed NGO-backed message of stopping child marriages. Sitara’s intent to educate and elucidate is perfectly placed within an effortlessly told anecdote-ish story. The people we see on-screen are bound by rural culture and antiquated mindsets, yet they aren’t bad. They just don’t know any better, despite knowing better.

As animations go, Obaid-Chinoy’s team at Waadi Animation has exceeded expectations. Animation Director Kamran Khan has a better flow of character animation and timing, and the cinematography (with long continuous takes), lighting and the rendering, is a notch above their last production, 3 Bahadur: Rise of Warriors — perhaps one of the worst animated films to come out of Pakistan.

Despite the technical achievements, the first thing that hits you as a viewer, perhaps as much as the pitch-perfect screenplay, is the film’s background score by Grammy and four-time Emmy-winning composer Laura Karpman. The score is a smooth-as-silk harmony of ethnic and western music that states the relevancy of one’s culture, and the necessity of adapting its outlook for the future. Like the film, it’s a perfect blend.

Sitara: Let Girls Dream is written and directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and produced by Obaid-Chinoy, Salman Iqbal and Mohammad Jerjees Seja. The film is a bona fide contender for another Oscar.

A word to the wise (and especially the not-so-wise): don’t skip the credits; there is another story to be told within them.

Sitara: Let Girls Dream’s intent to educate and elucidate is perfectly placed within an effortlessly told anecdote-ish story. The Turkish film Miracle in Cell No. 7 is a ham-fisted attempt to rationalise and localise a near-perfect South Korean film

Miracle in Cell No. 7

In the Turkish adaptation of the popular South Korean film, Miracle in Cell No. 7, the miracle aspect of the title is jostled into solitary confinement to serve a different purpose: to satisfy the writer-director’s staunch resolve to do things his way, even if it breaks the very essence of the story.

Heavy tear-jerking moments aside — which is a selling point of the original movie — the cruel story of the separation of a mentally handicapped father and his bright and smart daughter is localised into an anti-fascist regime drama set during Turkey’s 1980 coup d’état.

Opening in the present with a bride looking intently into the mirror right at the audience (subtlety is never a directorial hallmark in this movie), we flashback — a flashback, mind you, that doesn’t gel with the eventual climax of the story — to a small countryside settlement in 1983.

With Turkish flags waving at the doorstep of every household, and the very apparent iconography of its red colour signifying the turmoil of the time, it is understood that the town is under the dictatorship of a vindictive lieutenant colonel Yarbay Aydin (Yurdaer Okur).

Aydin is a vengeful man, with a warm-hearted daughter who buys a ‘red’ schoolbag from the local town store. The schoolbag, unfortunately, gets the village simpleton Memo (Aras Bulut İynemli) into trouble. Memo’s daughter, the wide-eyed Ova (Nisa Sofiya Aksongur), fancied that schoolbag as well.

A little later, in a strangely written scene, Aydin’s daughter saves Memo from bullying kids and beckons him to follow her to a secluded end of a nearby lake where she slips and falls to her death. Memo’s attempts to save her is misconstrued, and the dictator sends him to a faraway prison where he is put into cell no. 7 with seven or eight cellmates.

Writer-Director Mehmet Ada Öztekin’s film has an unwelcoming, overly dramatic tone that chokes the lightheartedness-in-despair tone of the original story. As if that weren’t enough, events crucial to the build-up of intrigue are shuffled around. Mysteries are revealed much earlier in this story, as if they held little value, and things are spelled out for the more simple-minded of the audience.

Many (if not all) aspects are screwed up in the process. Dramatic highpoints are revealed well in advance, killing many eye-opening moments and unwarranted additions of the supporting cast take the screen time away from the essential cast of characters who would have gotten the story to the right conclusion. FYI: the original had four members in the cell; all of them were quite crucial for the story to a certain point.

By the third-quarter of the film, the dramatic tone becomes chirpier out of the blue (which it should have been from the start), and the attendees at the screening finally start enjoying the film. For this critic, despite the eventual emotional high point of the climax, good cinematography and adequate performances, it was already too late.

Miracle in Cell No. 7, distributed by HKC, is a ham-fisted attempt to rationalise and localise a near-perfect South Korean film. The film is rated U/A and has scenes of intense drama, torture and a few good laughs.

The film should be playing in cinemas by the time you read this; it also, surprisingly, premiered on Netflix on March 13, the day of its theatrical release.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 15th, 2020