Villa Touma, award-winning Suha Arraf’s directorial debut, tells the story of three unmarried sisters whose orphaned teenage niece comes to live with them. Set right before the start of the second intifada, the formerly rich, aristocratic, Palestinian Christian sisters live in self-imposed internal exile, isolating them from the experiences of the outside world. They choose to live in a pre Six Day War time warp, lamenting the fact that the numbers in their social class are dwindling, mostly because rich Christian families immigrated to the United States after the war. This is even more sorely felt when it is decided that their niece, Badia, is old enough to marry; and so a flurry of Sunday mass, wedding, and funeral outings ensue, in order to find Badia an appropriate suitor. This forces the sisters to face the world they so vehemently shut out.
The Touma sisters desperately cling to their family name’s honour and old values. Especially since their family ‘honour’ was tarnished by their disowned brother, Badia's father, who married a Muslim woman. In one of the most touching scenes of the film, Badia finds a grave marked by a fallen wooden cross with her father’s name. The lack of a proper headstone marking his grave shows the extent to which the family rejected the fallen brother, even in his death. Badia, having been thrust upon the sisters is a painful reminder of the shame their brother brought upon them.
"They choose to live in a pre Six Day War time warp..."
The fact that two of the sisters never married, and that one of them was only able to marry an old man who died a year after the wedding is a hint at how their family must have been viewed by other families in their social circle. If honour killings are allegedly done to cleanse a family’s honour, the Touma family’s self-imposed isolation is their own brand of atonement. One can only imagine how the sisters must have watched their parents die with disappointment that their only son betrayed their hopes and dreams.
In a patriarchal society, three unmarried women, without a man in the house, are almost worthless. Their value, being linked to their ability to find husbands of their own social class, plummeting first at the indiscretion of the brother, then further more by the ensuing death of the father. Their reaction is to desperately (and almost artificially) cultivate and cling to their social status.
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Arraf’s helming debut treads on controversial ground, especially in its critique of a society that is not tolerant of dissent. Every single halting piece of dialogue, every so-called wooden performance, and every character flaw works together to piece together this image of a family broken by shame. There is no room, and indeed no need for subtlety in this film, which candidly brings the audience into a world with rigid societal norms, where women are often the victims, even when they are not the ones who brought their families shame. This is true for each sister, as well as the innocent niece who is doubly tarred by being the product of a taboo marriage.
I was surprised when reading the broadly negative reviews of the film after seeing it at the Palestine Film Festival in London. Variety, for example, scathingly called it an airless, artificial chamber piece, and continues on to say that it is stolid, stilted and lensed with little understanding of modulation.
"There is no room, and indeed no need for subtlety in this film"
I cannot help but think that the harsh criticism is based on the lack of cultural understanding, as well as completely missing the point Arraf was trying to make, and that is to bring to light several issues within Palestinian, and indeed Arab society, that are hardly ever discussed. Most of these issues undeniably pertaining to the controlling grip of an honour based society that is equally suffocating in both Muslim as well as Christian communities.
Some might find it interesting to learn that Arraf managed to stir even more controversy when she chose to submit Villa Touma to the Venice Film Festival as a Palestinian film, even though it had received funding from Israeli institutions, resulting in a furore of campaigning against her, as well as a demand that the funds be returned.
Interspersed with gems of candour and hilarity, Villa Touma is simultaneously feminist, political, controversial, and very Palestinian. It is most definitely worth watching.