Kurdish director Shawkat Amin Korki’s fourth feature continues his engagement with the deep and lasting effects of turmoil in the Levant. The Exam portrays just one of the many consequences of the steady erosion of certainty caused by war, military conflict and the never-ending refugee crisis in the region.
The Exam is set in the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq. The 89-minute drama, which is being screened at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, revolves around a problem deeply familiar in India: examination fraud.
Shilan (Avan Jamal), married to a cruel husband, wants to ensure that her younger sister Rojin (Vania Salar) will not share her fate. However, the troubled teenager is in no shape to take a crucial set of tests that will send her to university and save her from marriage.
Shilan’s rescue mission takes her into literal and figurative depths. A pair of fraudsters working out a basement leak the answers to Shilan and other parents. The price cannot be measured in currency.
Often resembling the hardship chronicles seen in Iranian cinema, The Exam conveys attrition through accretion of detail about the hard life in this part of the world. The rate of gold has fallen because of the rush of refugees fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Syria. The university entrance examination itself is a step towards a better life. Short on money but filled with the resourcefulness of the despairing, Shilan moves heaven and earth to ensure that her sister passes the tests.
Folded into the depiction of a righteous crime is patriarchy, which predates and will outlast the region’s troubles. Shilan’s husband Sardar (Hussein Hassan Ali) frequently reminds his wife of her place in the kitchen and bedroom, making her actions necessary, honourable even.
Written and filmed without judgement, The Exam has an added layer of will-she-won’t-she suspense. Korki’s smooth direction piles on the bleakness without a trace of heaviness. Despite unidimensional performances by the main female leads, the film powerfully explores the efforts of one woman to rise out of the rubble, using whatever means possible.