A Married Woman At All Costs: 'My Sunny Maad' Film Review
How do you assign the director of signature erotic films, such as The Carnival of Animals (2006) and Tram (2012) to helm a story which talks of the curtailment not just of eroticism, but of human affection itself? The fact that Michaela Pavlátová has decided to direct such a story of a Czech woman married in post-Taliban Afghanistan is provocative news enough -for its simple lack of provocation. Yet, on a second reading, Pavlátová has always relied on keen observation of ordinary life to bring her characters on the big screen; and this story is no exception. The result is a devious cinematic play on human commitment at all costs.
'My Sunny Maad' is based on the Czech journalist Petra Procházková’s novel Frišta, which details the story of a Russian-Tadjik woman, which falls in love with an Afghan guy and they decide to get married and live in his home country. Both the novel and the film (the script is an adaptation by Ivan Arsenjev, in collaboration with Yaël Giovanna Lévy) reserve their main title for a secondary character -and this looks to be no accident, at least in the film.
In My Sunny Maad, the blue-eyed Helena (now Herra, voiced by Zuzana Stivínova), an economics student, falls in love with Nazir (Haji Gul Asir); the dreary Prague of 2011 and her nerd fellow students are no match for the concept of family she has built out for herself -even if comes with a burqa as a result.
Nazir is definitely more progressive than the rest of his family (except for his father, who still remembers the day of a more liberal Afghanistan), but his national and cultural sentiment will still prevail, even if finds a job for the Americans -an implied presence and a muted threat.
With politics scantily depicted in My Sunny Maad (the death of Osama Bin-Laden is treated as a matter of a TV news item), the focus now becomes Herra's attempt to assimilate. Her strategy is simple: try to find support in her smaller family circle (her husband), while keeping up with the traditions of the bigger family -which sometimes can be her worse enemy and the enemy of other female family members.
Meet Maad (Shahid Maqsoodi), a kid with a disability which will be practically adopted by the couple, and will become her only ally in her family battles. In an ever sunny (but still hazy) Afghanistan, the two agents are the ones to take action, starting with Herra's doing charity work for the US Embassy.
The two-thirds of My Sunny Maad look like a slow-burn, third-person observation of Herra herself watching Azir's family, and her good-for-nothing, aggressive brother-in-law. We definitely know it's the calm before the storm, yet the fluidity of movement and the warm, almost luminous colors almost testify to a different story; this is not the sunny world of Maad himself, a very acute observer of his own situation. It is the rose-tinted world of Herra herself, who still thinks (unlike her US fellow woman worker and unlike Marjane in Persepolis) that she can live and prosper in a place full of rules that put women's own respect at risk.
It is almost as if we are being deceived here with the film's visual atmosphere, and Pavlátová herself distances from her main character, working mostly as a reporter of feelings of love and commitment (her own, first-person response comes in the imaginary skateboarding scene, where women run on the street without fear of social consequences). Herra lives herself the lives of the others: her disappointed sister-in-law Fresta, her teen niece Rashan, ready to be married to a 40-year-old man. Herra'd probably be happy herself if the others had a better fate, while she still clings to her husband.
In the third act, things change dramatically for the worst for Herra, and she needs to make decisions of her own, and still keep her nuclear family intact. 'My Sunny Maad' has the saddest happy ending I have watched in a recent animation feature; it only tells that the need for commitment can actually become your second nature.
My Sunny Maad is neither a story of empowerment nor a light comedy of manners (despite the promo trailers and material); it is a keen, penetrating observation of a woman who needs to save her idea of a relationship while at the same time encouraging freedom of choice for all the others. Working mostly within a documentary mode that leaves out a central conflict, the film is armed with its enticing visual environment to create a sober reflection on personal and cultural morals. A well-crafted and almost alarming film.
Produced by Czech firm Negativ Film Productions, French Sacrebleu Productions and Slovakia’s BFILM. My Sunny Maad is sold worldwide by Totem Films.
The film had its world premiere at the 2021 Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Official Competition), 14-19 June 2021.