Exposing Secrets

Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone is built upon the ancient Persian myth that the syngué sabour is a confessional tool, an object on which you can lay all your secrets, your despairs and your rage.

The patience stone has become a tale passed through generations of women in Middle Eastern cultures where their voices and conversations are not as free as those we enjoy in the West. It’s a way of letting go of oppression, of seeking an outlet in marriages and patriarchal relationships in which speaking with honesty and doubt is not permitted.

Atiq Rahimi’s Goncourt prize-winning book of the same title has been expertly adapted for the big screen to produce a tale of secrets and lies and an unerring insight into the mysteries of the female psyche through an everywoman. Published to critical acclaim in 2008, the seeds for Rahimi’s Syngué Sabour  were sewn on Rahimi’s 2005 visit to his native Afghanistan. Hearing of the assassination of a young, female Afghan, and the state of her husband, who lay in a coma, Rahimi wrote this imagined confessional of one oppressed woman to her unconscious husband: “Very slowly the legend came to my head and slowly this man became this kind of patience stone.” For Rahimi the myth and the reality are intertwined and he recognises Afghanistan as the “kind of country [where] a woman cannot talk about herself, her desire or about anything when a man is present.”

Syngué Sabour  has now been adapted into a Persian film, with Rahimi as director and co-screenwriter alongside the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière. It is a subtle, quiet production, with elements of the story gradually encroaching on the viewer as we discover more about the protagonist and the upbringing that has brought her to this place. Set in an ordinary home, in the midst of a war zone, the film sees one woman’s confessions and frustrations at the bedside of her comatose husband. It is a bold, powerful and ultimately uplifting story of this woman’s resolve to break free from silence and years of oppression, featuring a breathtaking performance from Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies).

Abandoned and forgotten by her family and in-laws, denied credit by the pharmacist and water-carrier for unpaid debts, and caring for her two young daughters, an unnamed woman must nurse and pray for her husband’s safe recovery in the midst of a chaotic war zone. In a small ramshackle room in the family’s modest house, the wife tends to her husband, replaces his makeshift drip and bathes him while keeping her daughters away from his bedside, and seeking shelter in the basement during numerous ammunition attacks in the neighbourhood. Aside from a handful of neighbours cowering beside the woman in the bomb shelter during each attack, she is palpably alone – the once proud family of her rebel-fighter husband have fled the city and abandoned her. As time passes and she becomes increasingly desperate, the woman’s prayers morph into confession, and we learn of her upbringing, her arranged marriage, her pride at securing such a high-profile husband, and her anguish at the trouble they had with conceiving.

The Patience Stone  is a slow reveal, and the woman unveils facts about her marriage that highlight her marginalised place in the world – a husband so politically involved only his photograph was present at her wedding, a father so obsessed with his combat quails that he lost another daughter in a bet, and a culture so deeply rooted in patriarchy that the couple’s failure to have a child is automatically blamed on the woman. Slow to progress, but painfully poignant, the woman finally tracks down her aunt (a prostitute, whose brothel ironically provides safety and solace for the children) and establishes an awkward, uncomfortable relationship with a shy, stammering soldier. The film’s conclusion is gripping and shocking, a sudden jolt after a long, moving narrative and it makes the woman’s confession and her journey all the more poignant. The unnamed woman is superbly portrayed by Farahani, who identified so well with the part, she said: “If you don’t take me for your film then I will take your book and play it in the street.” Every confession and betrayal is exquisitely played, and it is Farahani’s performance that elevates this gradual narrative into an intense and incredibly moving drama.

Rahimi’s native Afghanistan has inevitably influenced his work because, as he says: “It’s my whole life and what I know.” Born to an eclectic family – his father served three years in jail after the 1973 coup d’état, his brother became a communist, his sister a feminist, and his mother, “she was very mystic” – Rahimi made a life-changing trip to India at the age of 16 where he was inspired to “understand another culture and religion, after that I changed.” From India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Rahimi takes inspiration from local “legend and fantasies” and explains: “In all of my works, I use these inspirations from legends and literature. I don’t just want to talk of realistic events, maybe it’s because in Indian and Persian culture we are all fascinated by myths because we have some kind of eternity.” These are elements that continue to inspire Afghan filmmakers and Rahimi sees an exciting future for the country’s cultural output: “The films have a new energy in Afghanistan. You see the younger generation and you believe in their energy and synergy and I think it is this generation who have changed everything in Afghanistan.”

After the phenomenal success of his book, Jean-Claude Carrière’s offer to adapt it for screen appealed to Rahimi, as it enabled him to release new life into his characters: “What is exciting and challenging for a writer-director, is finding a way to exceed one’s own book and say in his film all the things he didn’t manage to write.” Having previously worked together in 2007 (on an as-yet-unfilmed screenplay), Rahimi and Carrière had already established a working relationship upon the publication of Syngué Sabour  and Carrière phoned Rahimi “to say how much he liked the book and how it would become a good film.” Initially sceptical, Rahimi was persuaded by his previous experience with Carrière and his ability to bring new ideas and a freshness to the script, Rahimi says: “He proposed so many good things, and he’s such a good scriptwriter so it was an honour to work with him. I’ve read so many things of his and for me he was my teacher.”

One major reworking is in the point of view: “In the book it’s a narrator; he is the man in the room. This narrator never leaves this room; every time he’s here.” By shifting the narrative perspective, and allowing us to enter the external world outside of the husband’s sick bed, Rahimi and Carrière were able to introduce elements that were sidelined in the book, where the woman’s childhood and her moments of calm and safety at her aunt’s brothel are overlooked, Rahimi says: “The auntie, the father, everything – they don’t exist, it’s only the woman talking about them but in the movie we see them as themselves.” The beauty of this film is its ability to clearly visualise the scenes surrounding this woman and its challenge in juxtaposing myth and fantasy with the realities of her daily life. Here Rahimi explicitly states what is not given in the book – that the narrative takes place in his native Afghanistan: “In the movie we have to show the country, the location, the dress and pretty much everything. So we have to be close to reality. In the book we don’t know where it is but in the film we know that it is in Afghanistan.”

Filming of The Patience Stone  posed an additional challenge in accurately representing the atmosphere and scenes of a place perpetually at war. One of the most terrifying aspects of the film is the constant proximity of life-changing conflict and the almost stoic, resolved way that this unnamed woman and the ordinary people around her go about their daily business in the face of real and present danger. As the woman bathes her husband, runs daily errands and seeks out her aunt, there is a constant background of air strikes, tanks, soldiers and rebel fighters roaming the streets. The room where she holds her vigil has a calm, musty atmosphere but during large-scale attacks, the war inevitably creeps in through smashed windows and flying debris, and later the invasion of two soldiers who pose a new threat to the woman. Viewing these scenes throughout the film, and the manner in which the woman moves through this landscape, is genuinely shocking and makes the proximity of life and death terrifyingly palpable. It is in these moments that the script, acting and story are at their most gripping.

Outside of these forays into the conflict-ridden neighbourhood, the staging is very narrow and closed off, predominantly taking place in this one room where the husband lies. In many ways the cinematography reflects the position of the woman herself – it is a very claustrophobic place to be contemplating everything and witnessing a confession within these four, shabby walls – these shackles highlight the woman’s role in society and her lack of other viable options. The blue of the room reflects the blue of a woman’s traditional face covering and for Rahimi “it is also symbolic of the situation of woman in Afghanistan. This man is inside of this woman because of censorship.” While The Patience Stone  unavoidably comments on the place of women in Afghan society, Rahimi highlights that, while he doesn’t understand it, some can come to embrace this oppression too: “This is a system familiar to women in Afghanistan. Sometimes women too, don’t want to be very free.” In contrast to this claustrophobia, the interior of the room is juxtaposed with the outside public street and it becomes at times a place of intimacy and warmth. As the woman establishes a sexually satisfying relationship (for the first time in her life) with a young soldier, the house becomes an intimate, erotic place, and the woman, previously a naïve child-bride, inadvertently becomes a teacher to the inexperienced man.

It is this representation and juxtaposition of female sexuality and our expectations of it that provides The Patience Stone’s most revealing narrative. Afghanistan is not known for sexual liberation of any kind and the woman’s continual oppression and self-editing as she speaks to her comatose husband truthfully for the first time in their marriage is representative of that oppression. We are made constantly aware of the view of female sexuality in this culture – the woman must cease the daily prayers at her husband’s bedside as soon as she starts menstruating because her prayers won’t be heard while she is “unclean” – but in contrast, her sexuality is also liberating. We see her happy for the first time on receiving sexual satisfaction with the young soldier, and she puts lipstick on and emphasises her beauty and sexuality, as she becomes visibly more relaxed towards the end of the film.

While this woman, and her self-censorship, is a product of her culture, Rahimi emphasises her universal qualities: “If you put any woman in that situation she can become like the protagonist. In our country there is so much of a back story about sexuality but I think that as this woman finds out about it herself, and comes to understand her sexuality, it resonates with all the women of the world.” And while sex is rarely discussed openly in Afghan culture Rahimi is insistent that “she cannot talk about it in her society but only to herself, and when the women are together, they talk about it,” and he highlights the region’s growing tradition of celebrating the sexual and its influx of erotic poetry: “We have Rumi, a poet from Afghanistan, who produces very explicit poetry. Outside of Afghanistan, there is a type of short poetry, which is about the sexuality of women.” The universal fact of sexual pleasure makes, for Rahimi, these discussions inevitable and necessary: “I think that it does exist so we have to talk about it. Of course Afghan woman are like all other women.” This focus represents an exciting new direction for Afghan art and culture and on a recent visit to the country Rahimi was “surprised to see the poetry of women: it was so detailed; it was wonderful.”

The Patience Stone opens in cinemas across the UK on 6 December. For more information, visit www.axiomfilms.co.uk.

Ruby Beesley