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(For its 31st edition, the SXSW Film & TV Festival hosted nine days of screenings from March 8-16, 2024. Check out Chris Reed’s Wakhri movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

In 2016 in Pakistan, social-media star Fouzia Azeem (known by the stage name Qandeel Baloch), was strangled by her brother for, in his eyes, bringing shame upon the family. She was a provocative voice taking bold stances on women’s rights. In her new film, Wakhri (Punjabi for “one of a kind”), director Iram Parveen Bilal (I’ll Meet You There) takes Azeem’s story as inspiration for a lively examination of gender politics and the courage it takes to push back against established norms. Beautifully filmed and powerfully acted, the movie places its polemic inside a rousing, engaging narrative that never fails to stir the viewer.

Faryal Mehmood—making her feature debut—stars as Noor, a widowed mother and teacher in a girls’ school. Her best friend, Gucchi (newcomer Gulshan Majeed), is a queer influencer deeply immersed in an underground scene of parties and live performance art who provides her with a safe haven to be herself, away from her more conservative family (especially her former in-laws, always pushing for custody of her young son, Sulay). One night, fed up with so much in her life, she dons a wig and a veil at one of Gucchi’s events and steps up on stage to poetically vent frustrations about what it means to be a woman in Pakistan. Since everyone there has smartphones out to record, she soon goes viral.

Noor adopts the pseudonym “Wakhri,” and at first takes pains to remain discreet. But her school is about to be closed, and she needs to raise money for a new location so that her students can continue to get the education they deserve. They, themselves, catch wind of Wakhri’s speeches (Noor begins to produce them more formally to give her growing fanbase what they want) and spread the word. As much as women and other repressed groups everywhere (including the LGBTQ community) find Wakhri empowering, there is pushback from the usual suspects. Tensions rise, threats are made, and it appears that Wakhri could meet the same fate as Qandeel Baloch.

Bilal deftly handles this complex story, shifting tones between heavy drama and light humor to relieve the dramatic pressure. The script takes welcome unexpected turns, and even when something predictable happens, the resolution of events still surprises. Cinematographer Ludovica Isidori (Sanctuary) delivers striking images, complementing production designer Kanwal Khoosat’s excellent work. Violence may most often be the unfortunate result of revolutions, but change is sometimes worth that risk. In Wakhri, Bilal shows us both the beauty and pain of small triumphs that may one day lead to victory.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2024 SXSW Film Festival; Wakhri, Iram Parveen Bilal

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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