Afghan-born, now-German director Burhan Qurbani explores this question in his debut feature film Shahada (In English: Faith), by following the lives of three main characters, whose stories intersect at places.
Maryam (played by Maryam Zaree) is a westernised, party-loving girl, who finds herself pregnant and decides to self-administer an illegal abortion. The choice was difficult enough, but the subsequent days of pain and bleeding add to her feelings of guilt. She begins to see her suffering as punishment from God, an experience of faith that entirely changes her conception of it.
This leads her to express contempt for her local imam, who is none other than her own father.
Imam Vedat (played by Vedat Erincin) preaches a moderate, tolerant Islam, always aware of his pastoral responsibilities, guiding his flock in coping with the modern world. He reminds his congregants that they must seek to understand the world that their children live in.
The second main character is Ismail (Carlo Ljubek), a policeman. Though he remains nominally Muslim, albeit a non-observing one, he has an ethnic German wife and a young son who recites a Christian prayer that he learns from school. Ismail’s “sin” is marital infidelity, complicated by the fact that the young woman — Leyla (Marija Skaricic) — whom he is interested in is Muslim and had been shot by him previously in a police shoot-out gone wrong. She lost her unborn child in that incident and Ismail continues to feel guilt over his role in that. Does Leyla hold a grudge? How does she resolve that through her religion?
Sammi (Jeremias Acheampong) has a different conflict between his self and his religion, for he is gay and had been sexually active with Daniel (Sergej Moya), a co-worker. With the issue grating within him, he tells his mother, but her response is strident — going down in prayer and calling on God to cast the devil out of him. Sammi then broaches the subject very obliquely with Imam Vedat, who tries to assure him that “in the eyes of Allah, all forms of love are good,” but somehow Sammi does not find it credible. Adding to his misery, he is caught between the overt homophobia of another Muslim co-worker, Sinan (Burak Yigit), who appeals to his Muslim solidarity as Sinan bullies Daniel, and his own feelings for Daniel.
As an exploration of religion, Shahada is limited by its fictional characters, unable to go where its characters have no need to go. Moreover, the characters tip rather too easily into melodrama, and at times, the attempt to make their crises a matter of faith feels somewhat forced. This is particularly so for the subplot centred around policeman Ismail. As a non-observing Muslim, religion is not a part of his daily life, and his entire story seems like a wandering digression.
A common difficulty with stories based on three separate subplots is that the characters in each get very little time for development. This weakness is quite evident here. The main characters were already little more than cardboard standees — one is left wondering for example, what exactly is the relationship between Sammi and Daniel, and why does Ismail seem to have no affection for his own son? — but the secondary characters were given even shorter shrift. For example, Sammi’s mother, the very devout woman, needed to be fleshed out better. Ismail’s wife’s feelings as her husband yearned for Leyla, cried out for exploration. Imam Vedat’s views about the place of Islam in Germany would have been good material to construct an extended dialogue on.
Ultimately, the film served as a good appetiser, but left one less than satisfied. That said, it was well-paced within its 90 minutes. Its location choices and scene settings were expertly done. The wide shots of locations where the characters lived and worked conveyed the dehumanised sterility that migrant workers often find themselves in; the smaller, domestic spaces spoke of attempts to keep immigrant aesthetics alive in gritty working class apartments.
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Perhaps Qurbani intended for his characters to show the myriad ways by which Muslims live their faith. Some observe the Ramadan fast, others do not. The adherence to the rule about not consuming alcohol is touched on, (but so briefly, I didn’t know what to make of it). And of course, there is the question: What does “obeying God” mean? How does one know what God wants?
Intended or not, the film left me with the notion that religion is ultimately very plastic. We tend to think that personal conflict arises when people do what religion forbids. The way Shahada’s characters demonstrate it, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Each character already has within him a sense of guilt, and it is not obvious that it springs entirely from religious teaching. Ismail, the policeman, was non-religious, for one. Indeed our sense of morality springs from many sources, and it is often the conceit of religion to claim to be the only one.
In all three subplots, the characters first suffer torment, and then reshape their sense of faith to be in sync with it. Maryam’s physical pain post-abortion and guilt about a foetus dumped into a river are the triggers that redefine Islam for her into a punishing regime. In her mind, Allah becomes a sterner God and fellow-Muslims, including her imam father, who preach a progressive interpretation, are almost apostates.
For Sammi, there was a kernel of unease for having been sexually active with Daniel, yet his mother’s response — pray now and ask God to cast out the devil — struck him as extreme. It didn’t fit what he wanted, but neither did the imam’s advice that all forms of love are good. Sammi seemed to want the issue unresolved; he seemed to want a disapproving God so that the conflict within him had reason to exist.
With Leyla, the Bosnian girl who lost her unborn child to Ismail’s bullets, she too had a conception of religion that suited her, but I will be getting into a plot spoiler if I revealed too much, for her story provided the nice little twist that the film ended with.
Is there a general truth to this — that people rewrite their religious beliefs to suit their torment? If we get defensive about our beliefs, we would instinctively say: No, that’s impossible, for God and religion are more eternal and bigger than us.
Is that the only valid answer? God — if you believe in one — maybe. But is not the how you believe in one, the nature of that God and his relationship with you, very much a product of your own will and state of mind, including the subconscious?