When Pomegranates Howl: A heartfelt anti-war film

When Pomegranates Howl (Film Review)
4 min read
17 December, 2021
Film review: Based on real events, Iranian-Australian writer-director and poet Granaz Moussavi’s sophomore feature is a brutal and moving tale set in a war-torn Kabul.

The European premiere of Iranian-Australian writer-director and poet Granaz Moussavi’s sophomore feature When Pomegranates Howl took place in the Current Waves section of this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (12-28 November 2021).

The feature, recently nominated by Australia for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is based on real events and entirely set in a war-torn Kabul. In 2009, Moussavi helmed her debut, My Tehran for Sale, a drama revolving around Marzieh (Marzieh Vafamehr), a young Iranian theatre actress forced to lead a secret life in order to express herself artistically, while dreaming of a way out of her country.

When Pomegranates Howl, instead, focuses on a nine-year-old boy, called Hewad (played by young talented newcomer Arafat Faiz). Through the opening sequence, we realise that Hewad’s father and brother were both recently 'martyred'. In order to support his family, he drops out of school and begins selling some random goods on a cart he carries around the streets of the Afghan capital.

"How do we react when hearing or watching war stories? Are we somehow pushed to act or to reflect upon things? Or, are we passively empathising with the victims, while pain and suffering become part of the imagery we consume daily?"

After assuming the role of the family’s breadwinner, Hewad tries to provide for his younger sister, his grandmother (Saeeda Saadat) and his mother (Freshta Alimi), who may soon face a forced marriage with her brother-in-law (Amir Shah Talash).

The world around Hewad, unsurprisingly, does not offer any prospects. Thus, the child’s only way to escape the miseries of his everyday life are his dreams for a better future. In particular, the boy wishes to become a rich, famous Hollywood actor and to buy his family a fancy house.

The first crucial narrative twist takes place when, after the sudden bombing of a festival venue, Hewad encounters an Australian reporter (portrayed by a real-life, Kabul-based war photojournalist, Andrew Quilty), who works for the fictitious publication National Historic. Hewad seems shaken by what happened – but not too much – and agrees to be photographed by the man who needs to report on the attack. The two will meet again and befriend each other.

Despite not being a professional actor, Quilty plays his part with the right attitude, exploring a conflict that he – or some of his colleagues – most certainly experienced on their own skin during their fieldwork. Quilty’s character questions the boundaries between his duties as a war reporter and a desire to deliver a compelling, aesthetically appealing piece of storytelling. In addition to this, we find out that the character is also the father of a child of the same age.

The complexity of their relationship brings the reporter to gift the child with some brand-new shoes (after having bought another pair for his son), but also to lend him his camera asking to take some pictures or to stage his poses to enhance the emotional weight of his portraits.

When Pomegranates Howl [Film Review]
Faced with the responsibility of breadwinner, nine-year-old Hewad is forced to negotiate the harsh realities of Kabul where futures are stunted at birth [Bonsai Films]

The core theme of this film is all in this conflict. How do we react when hearing or watching war stories? Are we somehow pushed to act or to reflect upon things? Or, are we passively empathising with the victims, while pain and suffering become part of the imagery we consume daily? Said conflict is somehow brought to a resolution in the scene following Hewad’s burial and the photojournalist’s tragic encounter with his mother and grandmother.

All in all, the film powerfully reminds us how brutal and unexpected war can be. Nevertheless, When Pomegranates Howl keeps the conflict in the backdrop throughout, and this is a rewarding choice in light of how the narrative ultimately develops. This allows Moussavi to widely explore Hewad’s everyday life with a certain dose of light-heartedness and later to enhance the film’s shocking ending.

When Pomegranates Howl [Film Review]
The ever-present war in Afghanistan is passive throughout the film, with the viewer focusing rather on the torturous hardships of day-to-day family life [Bonsai Films] 

The film’s cinematography, lensed by Behrouz Badrouj (Ali Derakhshandeh’s The Enemies), adopts a quasi-observational style in terms of both framing and colours, skilfully escaping any temptation of chasing aesthetic achievement or depicting Kabul’s streets in a more spectacular, eye-catching fashion. The editing work, however, is not flawless since the juxtaposition of real archive footage with staged sequences does not always look organic as it should.

Perspectives

Moussavi started shooting When Pomegranates Howl in 2017 following reading headlines regarding an attack the was carried out by the Australian armed forces in which two boys – aged 11 and 12 – were killed. The post-credit scene proves how little consideration such tragedies still receive at the institutional level.

In it, a news anchorwoman interviews an Australian politician, who expresses his solidarity but states that the compensation for the victims’ families must be in the likes of ‘hundreds’ instead of ‘thousands,’ alluding to Afghanistan’s weaker economy and lower cost of living.

For these people, Hewad’s death represents a loss that can be compensated by an estimate of his human capital, and his value, sadly, is close to zero.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland. 

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni