The Movie Waffler New Release Review - IN FLAMES | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - IN FLAMES

New Release Review - IN FLAMES
mother and daughter are menaced by figures from their past following the death of their family's patriarch.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Zarrar Kahn

Starring: Ramesha Nawal, Omar Javaid, Bakhtawar Mazhar, Adnan Shah Tipu

In Flames poster


Over the last decade, Pakistan has accommodated a yearly series of rallies called the Aurat which focus on the rights of women in the country and make "demands for safety from endemic violence, accessible health care in a nation where nearly half of women are malnourished, and the basic economic justice of safe working environments and equal opportunities for women." Not too much to ask, you'd assume, yet in 2014 a gender gap report from the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan 141 out of 142 countries, observing that women have less power than men and are excluded from decision making positions, which would delineate an urgent need for civic action. Post-Taliban, the situation has degenerated further, with girls restricted from accessing education, along with the abiding culture of honour killings. So, as it always is, however bad the situation may be, it is that much worse for young females (n.b., the age of consent in the country is irrelevant if the couple are married). It is only in the last three years that there has been an Anti-Rape Act in Pakistan.

In Flames review

Writing from a position of obscene ignorance, the above is a condensation of my morning's research enacted to contextualise Zarrar Kahn's stunning debut In Flames. A crucial film, because, as vital as research is, with its dry aggregation of data and dates, information alone can be reassuringly separate; an objective summary of something which is happening elsewhere; so easy to compartmentalise. Narrative, which engages on an emotional and subjective level, does not let us off the hook so easily. Following a pointed shot of a hand tied flag for the leftist Pakistan People's Party (I think, at least... but the emblem certainly denotes ideological purpose), In Flames opens at an Islamic funeral, where mum Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar), late teen daughter Mariam (Ramesha Nawaland) and little brother Bilal (Jibran Khan) mourn the death of their husband/father. Played in flashback by Vajdaan Shah, the character is not given the status of a name: perhaps because his position as patriarch is what prevailingly counts, and such presupposed largesse means that he could be any man, really. With the male head of the house gone, the family are left in a penumbra of insecurity; financial and otherwise.


Kahn homes in on Mariam as she negotiates this new and uncertain phase, which essentially entails avoiding the unwanted and invasive attentions of the men and boys who have the run of the city. A thug smashes the window of Mariam's car to grab at her, some big man attempts to shame the girl for being outside ("Our women don't walk the streets") and then later, having a platonic conversation with male companion Asad (Omar Javaid), an old man separates the two, maintaining that "this is not a Bollywood film." The oppression is consolidated by the Catch 22 of Fariha: Mariam is unable to inform her or the authorities of such episodes, as this would result in the over-protective mother containing her daughter even further. As bright yet beleaguered Mariam, Nawaland is superb in an immensely likeable performance, and appreciation also goes to costumer Zainab Masood, too, for Mariam's gorgeous array of saris (the art direction often colour codes via clothes, with green being a particularly resonant shade).

In Flames review

At this point, the horror, social as it may be, is manifest in In Flames and produces a destabilising atmosphere of threat and unpredictability. Further to this however, glimpsed in a camera pan or at the corner of a frame, is the ghost of Mariam's father, who seems to be haunting her, spookily presenting in her most private moments: her bedroom, her (vivid, impressionistic) dreams, or when she is visiting a spiritual healer. DoP Aigul Nurbulatova utilises tight shots and frames action with shelving, windows and close walls, engendering a restricted context. When the camera opens up to depict panoramas of mountains, deserts and a sapphire ocean where fleets of fishing boats bob as Asad takes Mariam on a trip, the effect is one of oxygenated reprieve.


Unfortunately for Mariam and poor old Asad (a crucial aspect of In Flames as he affirms that not every man is or needs to be a tyrant), there is no escaping the curse. A reference point is It Follows (right down to the creepy beach house, in fact), as during In Flames' (they also share initials - yikes!) running time the threat substantiates in different personas: her father, a man masturbating outside her window, and even Asad himself. However, whereas in 2014's (!) film the terror was born of sexual anxiety, here the threat is developed to be an imperious reification of the patriarchy itself, which has been inaugurated by Mariam's sense of shame.

In Flames review

Another comparison could be Rosemary's Baby, which, like In Flames, is a film where ‘horror’ is just at the edge of the narrative, imbuing the human drama with the emotive and archetypal propulsion of genre storytelling (the Castavets there, Mariam's wrong-un uncle here: common-or-garden human evil). The film shares Ira Levin's paranoia and depiction of an assailable woman, and also uses this narrative to propose a critical disequilibrium. It is heartening to see horror used for what it should be in In Flames: a challenge to accepted norms and hegemony. Of course, you cannot give a film a starred rating just because you agree with what it is saying, so it is just as well that alongside its thoughtful and important polemic, In Flames is a consistently surprising, frightening and deeply entertaining horror film, too.

In Flames is in UK/ROI cinemas from May 24th.



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