Nafisa is a young teenage girl growing up and working in a cotton-farming village in Sudan. She has a quiet but palpable crush on Babiker. But her parents have arranged her marriage to Nadir, a young Sudanese businessman living abroad in Qatar, where his family owns a fabric factory.
Nafisa's marriage rests in the hands of her grandmother, Al-Sit, the village matriarch. Al-Sit ultimately must approve of each marriage in the village -- and decide Nafisa's fate, once and for all.
Written and directed by Suzannah Mirghani with a deft, pristine eye and attention to delicate detail, this absorbing, powerful Oscar-longlisted drama overlays a series of distinct but interlocking stories over one another. There's a poetic, quiet story of love, courtship and marriage about Nafisa's betrothal, captured in gestures and glances. But there are also the echoes of a larger conflict between modernity and tradition, reflected in the opposing poles of economic development and cultural preservation that the main characters represent.
The foundation of the film's power rests in its beautifully calibrated story, which balances loyalties and perspectives with great subtlety. As the question of Nafisa's marriage and future evolves, so does the question of what is best for Nafisa and the village. Nadir is disinterested in Nafisa and views the marriage as part of a business deal with Nafisa's cotton farmer father, and both want to modernize and increase production and profit.
The portrayal of child marriage is layered and complex, particularly when Nafisa's marriage comes before Al-Sit. Al-Sit has a deep and abiding respect for the village and its cotton fields and is openly skeptical of Nadir. Marriage, in this village, is not just about love or companionship, but familial alliances that ultimately protect the collective village and land, and Al-Sit is skeptical about Nadir's plans of modernization.
As this struggle develops, Nafisa waits on the sidelines, her fate out of her own hands. Actor Mihad Murtada plays Nafisa in near silence, straddling the line between childlike reverie and fearful watchfulness, particularly when actor Mohammed Magdi arrives as Nadir, with the careless self-absorption of a wealthy outsider. But actor Rabeha Mohammed Mahmoud truly commands the film with an authoritative, formidable performance as Al-Sit.
The powerful matriarch has her own plans for Nafisa, forged with great intention, care and love for her granddaughter, and the village's future. But ultimately Nafisa -- the young, seemingly voiceless girl in the middle of this web of plans -- has her own wishes and takes action for herself.
Brilliantly written and structured, "Al-Sit" has notable thematic complexity for a short film, touching upon ideas about women's rights, child and arranged marriage, colonial legacies, familial loyalty and economic development with remarkable grace and subtlety. But at its core, it is a universal story of a young person fighting to make her own choices in life. Al-Sit's motives are well-meaning, even wise if we consider the larger forces of globalization encroaching upon this rural village in Sudan. And Nafisa herself may make many mistakes in forging her life for herself. But they will be her mistakes, and her own wisdom to be learned from them.