Prison Sisters (movie review)

“I was sentenced to prison, but at the same time it was the only place I was free.”
– Sara in Prison Sisters (2016)

This week, I am visiting the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, one of my favourite film festivals. One of the documentaries that touched me the most was Prison Sisters by Nima Sarvestani. In the film, we follow Sara, a woman from Afghanistan applying for asylum in Sweden while struggling to leave her previous life and friends behind. Prison Sisters is a follow-up to Nima’s previous movie No Burqas Behind Bars about a women’s prison in Afghanistan. This second movie about Sara is a beautiful insight in the meaning of freedom to prisoners.

Sara was sentenced to Takhar Prison at the age of 17 for “moral crimes”; she had run away from home with a boy she fell in love with. After two years of prison, she was brought back to her family where she was locked into a room and the family did not allow her to leave. So her social imprisonment began.

“I did not want to be released from prison. Freedom is only good if you have a family that cares for you (…) After a woman has been to prison in Afghanistan, no one would marry her, no one would even speak to her.”
– Sara in Prison Sisters (2016)

Social isolation soon turned into fear; fear of her cousins and uncle killing her out of shame for the family. She contacted Nima, the director of both documentaries, to help her out. The movie Prison Sisters starts when Sara is visiting Sweden for the premiere of No Burqas Behind Bars and decides to apply for asylum.

Sara in Sweden, still from Prison Sisters – IDFA

While in Sweden, we see Sara calling her husband Navid. Unclear of when or how they met, Navid still lives in Afghanistan and through the telephone he urges her to behave according to the social-cultural norms back in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Sara turns into her own version of Lara Croft; with strong facial features and breaded her, she stands her ground to her husband and gets praised for her courage at every screening of the first documentary she attends.

“I wasn’t allowed to laugh out loud as you were afraid people would hear me and now you ask me why I go out and have friends? I am free now.”
– Sara on the phone with Navid

When Sara receives her residence permit, we see her scream of joy, dance and hug her friends. This moment closely resembles the first scene in which she receives the news of her release from prison and the following actual release and thus ties the stories together. The next step is for her husband to join her and while on her way to the airport, she could not have looked more Lara Croft than ever before: leather jacket, straight face. When her friend’ son asks her if she would hug and kiss her husband, she replies: Hug? yes. Kiss? no. He needs to prove his worth to her again.

But the question rises how much of this newly found freedom and character is part of her internal identity that she is discovering in the gender-neutral Sweden, or how much it is dictated by her Afghani-Swedish friends who tell her how to behave and how to talk to her husband. Sara dances at the Gay Pride, but not yet understands how sex can be pleasurable to women. She uses the words of freedom and feminism to her husband, but does she believe them yet?

We will not found out. After her husband arrives, Sara breaks all contact with her friends and the filmmakers. The movie states she dropped out of school and decided to dress traditionally again. The gender-constricting rules that created her social imprisonment and from which she felt free in prison, now extend beyond a country’s borders through her husband.

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