WHAT WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT MARIAM
Directed by Morad Mostafa
REVIEW BY NANCY DeLUCIA
WHAT WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT MARIAM is a bleak, disturbing film centered on a woman’s experience at a hospital in Egypt on the last day of Ramadan. The short synopsis I read before viewing the film said “Mariam goes to a public hospital with her husband and daughter; bleeding and suffering from severe pain in her abdomen. After the medical examination things escalate between Mariam and her husband.” Morad Mostafa, the writer/director, uses the sanitary, stark halls, offices, bathrooms and exam rooms of the hospital as a counterpoint to Mariam’s medical and family traumas.
Mostafa explained in interviews he did when the film was released that a very public argument he witnessed between a man and woman inspired him to write the screenplay. Mostafa wanted to explore the strained state of marriage in Egypt. Since the mid-1990s the divorce rate in Egypt has almost doubled. For a variety of reasons, marital ties are fraying, both in private and, increasingly, in public. Mostafa’s film gives us a glimpse into one couple’s marriage as nurses, doctors, other patients, hospital staff, and the couple’s young daughter bear witness to their broken relationship.
I found this film deeply disturbing, but my focus was not on the state of the couple’s marriage, rather I felt a knot in my stomach grow as I watched another film in which a woman had little agency over her life. As the film opens Mariam’s husband is talking to the hospital receptionist making an appointment for his wife. Though Mariam is in great pain, he decides she will wait an extra hour to be seen because he doesn’t want her to be examined by a male doctor. When a female gynecologist finds that Mariam may need surgery, she asks the husband, not Mariam, to approve the procedure. When her husband explodes violently Mariam’s father is called, another man will make decisions and take action for her. As the film continues, her brooding, hot-tempered husband makes his way into the room, back into the family, and it seems likely that they will soon go home where he again will be in control.
My reaction to “What We Don’t Know About Mariam” was colored by my angst, sorrow, and anger about the new Texas law virtually rescinding a woman’s right to choose and the dire future that Afghani women face now that the Taliban is back in power. I watched and ached for Mariam and women across the world. In the film’s final scene Mariam is in a café just outside the hospital where she has taken her daughter to get water and chips. Mariam’s physical and emotional pain are apparent and the ending leaves us wondering. What did she do given the bleak options she faced? Stay or leave? Neither will be a good choice for Mariam…or her daughter.