Yesterday’s movie was Quest for Honor, a documentary about the practice of people killing their own wives, daughters, and sisters for bringing shame on their families. As a title card at the end reminds us, these “honor” killings happen around the world, but the focus of this scrappy documentary is Kurdistan.
At its core is a real-life murder mystery that’s being investigated by the director of a women’s center, a former teacher named Runak Faraj, and Kalthoum, the young woman who works with her. A vivid picture of the area and its deep-rooted tradition of honor killings emerges as Runak and Kalthoum talk to police and to relatives and in-laws of the murdered woman, Nesrin—about how and why she was killed. Most of the people interviewed are surprisingly candid, the husband’s family as much as admitting their guilt even as they deny it. (Nesrin was shot point blank by some of her in-laws for the sin of seeing other men, even though her husband was deceased.)
Other people—including a beautician who has heard chilling stories from her clients, an apparently innocent woman imprisoned for killing her daughter (weeping over her loss, she says her husband did it), and women who fled for their lives to the center’s shelter—provide context as to how widespread the problem is and how it tends to play out. We also meet a young mother who found her way to a safe house after being threatened by her husband’s family, only to be hunted down and shot there for defying her husband (it seems that her crime was owning a mobile phone). She cries only twice as she tells her story: when she remembers how her own brother threatened to kill her if she left her husband and when she says she expects her daughter to have just as hard a time as she has had, since things are so bad for women in Kurdistan.
Perhaps the saddest encounter is with Nesrin’s three young children, who were taken in by her killers and have already been taught to denounce their mother and claim that they hate her. Even this, we are told, won’t keep them from being stigmatized for the rest of their lives for her actions.
Quest for Honor never quite defines honor killing (“I’m not an expert in honor killing,” said director Mary Ann Smothers Bruni during a Q&A after the showing at the IFC Center last night. “We really did this anecdotally”), but it appears to be arguing for a pretty broad definition. The title cards at the end say: “Honor killing is not a Kurdish problem. It is not an Islamic problem. Domestic violence kills four women every day in the U.S.” That last statement surprised me, since I’ve never thought of domestic violence as being synonymous with honor killing and the film had done nothing to change my mind. Yes, violence against women is a global epidemic, but aren’t honor killings a particularly virulent strain of that disease that needs a certain set of conditions in order to flourish?
That seems like an odd question for a movie called Quest for Honor to leave open, but there’s no doubting Runak’s and Kalthoum’s courage or their stubborn commitment to their cause, even in the face of death threats. They’ve made progress, too: two Iraqi laws that had made honor killings legal were replaced after Saddam Hussein’s ouster with a Kurdish law that declares the killing of any woman to be murder of a human being. And after learning how rare it is for anyone to be prosecuted for an honor killing in Kurdistan, it’s enormously satisfying to learn at the end that two men were arrested for Nesrin’s killing.
But as Runak observes, it’s an uphill battle, and it’s one the center could be said to be losing: Honor killings in the area are on the rise. As the coroner who examined Nesrin’s body puts it: “Killing her at close range shows enormous hatred.”
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.