Usually in a movie, there is one scene that tells you why the filmmaker devoted blood, sweat, tears and coffee stains to bring their vision to the screen. In the London-based film, Arifa, it occurs late. Arifa (Shermin Hassan) is at a gym class when the tutor tells her that she can’t leave her bag on the floor. Arifa is incensed. She storms out, stuffs her bag on a chair, where anyone can steal it, frankly, then marches back in and takes her position. The gym tutor tells the class what to do and Arifa calls out ‘bitch’. The tutor directs the class to change the exercise and Arifa cries ‘bitch’. The tutor asks the class to walk round the room and Arifa yells ‘bitch’.
At this moment, I had flashbacks of children’s TV stars Dick and Dom shouting out ‘bogie’ at various volumes, the loudest cry of ‘bogie’ scoring the most points. I shouldn’t be thinking of Dick and Dom. I should be trying to appreciate the storytelling prowess of British Pakistani writer-director Sadia Saeed, who crowd-funded her movie.
Arifa is a 28 year old virgin who works for an insurance company. She is dating a colleague, who calls her ‘high maintenance’ for wanting to be driven home and have her bag taken out of the back of the car. She lives with her mother and a family friend. They both have laptops on when Arifa comes back from her damp squib date. We don’t think Arifa wants sex, but she wants something. She has a therapist. She attempts creative writing but she doesn’t read books or watch TV because those require copyright clearances and this is a low-budget, Kickstarter-funded British film of independent genre.
I would like to tell you that it is a romance, but when Arifa is approached by Ricardo De Luca (Luca Pusceddu), who is into computer games and talks about Asian eyebrows, we are not in a romantic world. Ricardo is shady, flaky. He keeps making trips abroad.
I would like to tell you that it is a character study. However, I didn’t get a sense of why Arifa ended up where she was. The job isn’t the issue, but she has a therapist and a creative writing tutor who describes her prose not as a story but as a magazine article. She has a white friend who takes her handbag shopping, even though Arifa doesn’t need a new handbag. I know – it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
I would like to tell you it is the story of a career criminal who returns to Arifa’s home. Arifa’s father is separated from his mother but comes back to live with the family and sells tobacco out of sandwich bags. He has a soft voice and complains that his mobile phone was stolen and returned to him. He seems … troubled.
I would love to describe it as a road movie, with Arifa travelling to the seaside to track down Ricardo – or something.
It is basically about a woman at odds with the world. We don’t know where her standards come from – and that may be part of the problem. She describes herself as thin-skinned, which Ricardo strokes at the mention of it, as if in the spirit of scientific enquiry.
At one point, Arifa moves into her therapist’s spare room and there is the threat of drama – a crazy old woman accosts her in the house – she owns the leasehold. Assumptions are made about Arifa’s Asian character. When asked where she is from, she replies, ‘Crawley’. In a real sense, the film is about living in a permanent state of being judged, yet at the same time seeing what a waste of space Abbu is.
Against conventional measures of cinematic pleasure, Arifa falls short. It is slow, mostly consists of two characters talking to each other and has very little action. Except for the gym scene – thank heavens for that.
At another point, there is a heated row about small plastic bags. This is not my world – in any case, I bring my own when shopping. This leads to a note of optimism at the end, a deserved walking away from the camera credits sequence that might make you smile.
Afria is screened at the Rich Mix Cinema on Thursday 15 June 2017 at 21:00
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