They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t guilty. That’s the prevailing mindset of almost everyone in Love Crimes of Kabul, even the women who find themselves in jail in Afghanistan’s capital.

In the documentary, director Tanaz Eshaghian gets out of the way to let the stories of three women in Badam Bagh Women’s Prison speak for themselves. The application of fly-on-the-wall style produces a small window into a world that’s almost completely open to interpretation and might serve as a Rorschach Test for its viewers.

Kareema, 20, is imprisoned for getting pregnant out of wedlock and hopes to marry the father. Aleema, 22, ran away from an abusive home and is now in jail alongside the woman who gave her refuge (and allegedly attempted to sell her). Sabereh, 18, was turned in by her father after he caught her home alone with a boy, but a medical report shows that she’s still a virgin.

Those synopses might seem straightforward, but nothing in the film hints at the whole truth. What the girls really did or didn’t do remains a subjective experience depending on who’s delivering the information or the context. No matter the scenario, though, each believes she can hold her head up high morally while believing that the other women in the jail definitely belong there. In some cases, the girls fully admit they belong in jail as well while showing no remorse for what they’ve done. On one hand, it might seem like a new generation making a stand Rosa Parks-style, but none of the young woman are noble figures with broader intentions.

They don’t speak about fighting a system or changing the laws. They are simply girls who disobeyed a code of conduct informed by their religion and adopted/interpreted by the state. That the young women are completely unaware of the broader parallels of their behavior (or the Western interpretation of it) is incredibly telling, and the documentary is all the richer for it. On the one hand, their situations may seem revolting and despicable, but on the other, most of the movie plays out like The Jerry Springer Show: Live From Afghanistan.

In that sense, the movie might act as a mirror for unfair laws of all kinds. While it’s confusing to see a girl being punished for being sodomized willingly by her boyfriend, it’s also another reminder of the many sodomy laws that existed in the United States until as late as 2003. There are definite cultural similarities buried beneath the surface here even though, as a primer on Sharia law, the film is less than effective. That’s a shame, because it would have been even more vibrant had it delivered more history and information about the system these women find themselves in.

This film won’t nail anyone’s feet to the ground with its intensity, but that’s part of the appeal. It’s an opportunity to look inside a different culture through one aspect of its foundation: the law. While that may seem dry, the triumph here is that it’s a legal system with a foundation completely foreign and theoretically fascinating to most Western viewers.

While some of the subject matter might be startling to some (considering that you can’t be imprisoned for having pre-marital sex here in the United States), Love Crimes of Kabul is also a portrait of a legal system that moves relatively swiftly and with distinct purpose. Even if the laws themselves are morally questionable when placed against other systems, they are still the laws of the culture, and the courts handle the cases with an adeptness (and sometimes compassion) that keeps the family structure as the top priority.

Thus, the only truly shocking element is the attitudes and responses of the women and their families. Those intimate moments are where the gold is mined by Eshaghian and a crew that wisely chose not to step in front of the camera.

At the same time, there’s a distinctly political feel to the film considering that it takes place in an active war zone almost a decade after a foreign force brought down Taliban rule. It’s almost impossible to divorce the subject matter from that, and it seems likely that Eshaghian chose to follow these women in order to bring attention to the situation for hundreds of people who find themselves behind bars because they chose to have sex before marriage or didn’t come home by their curfew. There’s a call to action for those that want to see it, but there’s a purely engrossing portrait of a different culture for those who don’t.

Grade: B

Love Crimes of Kabul premieres tonight (7/11) on HBO at 9pm EST/PST.


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