Enemies of Happiness (Film Review)

Enemies of HappinessEnemies of Happiness is not The Beauty Academy of Kabul. It is not about a Western woman traveling to a war-torn country to save brown women. It is about an Afghan woman, Malalai Joya, who has chosen to risk her life to fight for her own people.

Eva Mulvad’s award-winning film opens with footage of Joya’s dramatic public denunciation of the criminal warlords who dominated the 2004 loya jirga (constitutional convention) in Afghanistan. This was the fateful moment when ordinary Afghans discovered their most dedicated spokesperson—a twenty-six-year-old woman who was willing to risk her life to give voice to her people. It was also the moment that cast Joya into international fame, and into the crosshairs of the most notorious Afghan criminals—the “enemies of happiness.”

The loya jirga incident was the impetus for Joya’s bid for a parliamentary seat, and her election campaign is the focus of the rest of the film. It is Joya’s unconventional method of winning over the voters of rural Farah Province that makes this film utterly fascinating.

Joya does give an inspiring campaign speech or two to women who have never voted and cannot read or write. But the poor residents of Farah are more impressed by her dedication to solving the myriad social and political problems that plague their society. A drug addict who abuses his wife and threatens to leave his family receives a stern lecture from Joya. A warlord who is intent on forcibly marrying a young girl is reported by the girl’s family to the police at Joya’s urging.

Enemies of HappinessAnother reason why her people love and trust her is that she is quite literally one of them. Eva Mulvad’s skillful and unobtrusive camera work captures the impoverished lifestyle that is unfamiliar to Joya’s Western supporters. We see her cooking a modest meal, squatting on her haunches as she washes her clothes, and sleeping within a ramshackle hut. Mulvad’s decision to forgo a narrator gives the film a rare intimacy and authenticity. Malalai and other Afghans speak for themselves, allowing the film to avoid the paternalism that affects most Western-made documentaries about “Third World” nations.

Throughout the campaign Joya remains stoic, knowing that if elected, her intent to expose the warlords will bring her even closer to death. Many Afghans have been brutally murdered for doing and saying far less. But in one meeting with a close friend, the immense gravity of her actions becomes apparent and she breaks down, begging Mulvad to turn the camera off.

Enemies of Happiness leaves off where Malalai Joya’s contentious career in Parliament begins. The film’s only flaw is that its triumphant ending obscures the greater danger that lies ahead: in May 2007, Joya was suspended for “insulting” her fellow MPs and ordered to face a court of law.

Still, this remarkable story of how one woman has risked everything for her people is devastatingly compelling. It is a lesson in deep democracy that elected representatives in the United States could stand to learn.

—Sonali Kolhatkar

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2007-08 issue of make/shift magazine (www.makeshiftmag.com).

Find out more about the film at www.enemiesofhappiness.com, and about Malalai Joya at www.malalaijoya.com