Let me preface this review with a statement: My Pure Land is the best film I saw at EIFF. It’s not the only film I’ve given a top rating, but it excelled beyond the rest of the competition to become something extra special. It’s a film with a bit of everything: an incredible story, fantastic cinematography, mind-blowing visuals, exhilarating action, and a gut-punch of emotion that’s sure to leave you breathless.
Suhaee Abro stars as Nazo, a young Pakestani woman. As My Pure Land begins, a group of angry-looking men drive up to her family home brandishing AK-47s and claiming that they have the true land rights to displace her and her family. A firefight begins. Structured around the carnage, Sarmad Masud weaves in the story of how this conflict came to be: a true story of devastating death, betrayal, and corruption in the desert.
The most important thing to note about My Pure Land is how it makes you feel. In much the same way as life itself, it switches from warm comedic highs to shockingly distressing lows with alarming regularity and little warning. Masud wants to take us on a journey through a family in crisis; and in doing so he reveals immense love, tragedy, and power. I’m not one to cry at movies – but I came close at around four different points.
The variety of genres present in the spritely 92-minute runtime is also deserving of commendation: partly because of the skill in fitting everything in; but mainly because it just works so damn well, and that’s a feat that the vast majority of filmmakers wouldn’t be able to achieve. At points there’s pulse-racing action. At other times, there’s comedy and social-realist drama. And, at its emotional peak, there’s a healthy dose of magical realism thrown in to provide some lofty images and ideas. What’s more, this is a true story (minus a few embellishments) – so to turn it into such an undefinably beautiful collage of genres is something that deserves nothing but the highest praise.
The way Masud structures his narrative is especially devastating given some of the atrocities occurring prior to and during the siege. By keeping the story non-linear, he’s able to make big reveals in a way that impacts both prior and future scenes – infusing certain segments with a ghostly reminder of fate, and a tragic poignancy. This is reflected in the stunning cinematography which simultaneously recalls Mad Max and Terrence Malick. Haider Zafar shoots the movie as if in limbo: at times, a handheld camera darts in social-realist mode around the fortified compound, invading our characters’ personal spaces and enhancing the claustrophobia. At others, steady drone/helicopter shots sweep over vast luminous deserts, as motorcades roar through the all-consuming dust. These two styles, like two eagles flying in the wind, often collide across time: in slow motion, a wedding from the past is interrupted by a line of foot soldiers from the present, sprinting and shooting through ghostly, effervescent dancers who remain blissfully naive about the threat to come.
An important facet to any family drama is believability – and My Pure Land has it in droves, chiefly because of the stellar acting capabilities on show. We really believe that these people love each other, and have lived with each other for most of their lives – which is nothing short of remarkable. Abro’s performance in the main role, combined with Syed Tanveer Hussain as her father, and Atif Akhtar Bhatti as her brother, are most certainly among the acting highlights of the year – understated, genuine, and emotional. Given the fantastical, almost hallucinogenic content at times, the emotional grounding of these characters is an essential move that’s been flawlessly carried off.
What is My Pure Land? It’s a story worth telling; and a plea for the halting of petty land disputes which have the power to destroy families. But, moreover, it’s a chronicle of resistance: the depiction of love in its purest form; resilience at the toughest possible moments; and the power of family relationships to stand strong against injustice and hardship. It’s a picture that will thrill you, amaze you, upset you, and empower you. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll leave the theatre with a newfound strength in your heart.
That night, the audience applauded. It’d be rude not to.
Featured image: Screen Daily.