BERLIN (Reuters) - Life hangs in the balance in a new film about an Iraqi girl whose father betroths her to a local sheikh, leaving her with a very adult choice: submit and forget dreams of education or risk death in the name of honor.
In "Niloofar," the determined 13-year-old is caught in a trap where opportunism and tradition push families to propagate customs that lead to their own regret -- unless individuals step up to tempt fate.
Filmmaker Sabine El Gemayel said she based the script on a girl she met while growing up in Lebanon, who, like protagonist Niloo, was confronted by forced marriage. But she said the issue the movie addresses is larger than a single region.
"It's a humanist film that's critical of a specific tradition, not a culture ... I did not want to make a film that was anti-Arab," she told Reuters after a screening at the Berlin film festival.
Gemayel said while the stakes may be higher in the Middle East, pressure to marry for money is not uncommon elsewhere.
"It's socio-economic pressure, and it happens across societies, also in the upper classes and whenever family wealth is in play," the 37-year-old, first-time feature director said.
Statistics on forced marriage are few and far between, but the U.N. estimates more than 60 million women in developing countries were married before the age of 18, with the practice most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Other studies show forced marriage occurring in the industrialized world, though rebellion against it rarely ends up in the honor killings that make headlines elsewhere.
The film, however, touches on the issue, as when Niloo's father seizes a chance to escape landless peasantry over a game of backgammon and her brother holds a knife to her neck.
Shot in Iran and featuring several Iranian stars, the drama unfolds against a backdrop of palm trees and sweeping shots of vast landscapes that all but dwarf the struggling heroine.
Ethereal female vocals and Arabic rhythms dominate the soundtrack, intensifying as Niloo's options diminish and the lamentations of her brilliant-eyed, resigned mother intensify.
Women also play the part of oppressor in the film, with some promoting the idea that sons are more valuable family assets. Boys and men obsessed with gossip and reputation are portrayed as nervous subjects of social hierarchy.
"It also shows the inner conflict on the male side, the pressure, but it underlines the fact that there is always a choice," Gemayel said.
She remained optimistic that individual choices could lead societies toward progress, noting that "just sixty years ago in the United States there was serious racism and segregation."
Editing by Paul Casciato