‘What Tomorrow Brings’ is a concise and expressive work from Director and Producer Beth Murphy, and a very fitting inclusion into Bertha DocHouse’s ‘The Lives of Others’ season. It tells the story of the first ever girls’ school in the rural Afghan district of Deh’Subz, from its beginnings in 2009 to its first graduation in 2015. Skilfully balancing inter-generational perspectives, the film is a clear-cut testament to the perseverance of those fighting for female education in the face of patriarchal obstinacy and an uncertain political future.
It’s clear from the outset that Murphy has done a great job embedding herself into the community and forging excellent relationships with its members. In the typical style of a vérité feature documentary, most of what we see is purely observational, unimpeded by voiceover narrative. Snippets from individual interviews are scattered throughout, but these are short, impactful and carefully selected so as not to disturb momentum. This choice of style, combined with the comprehensive access gained by the film crew, lends a credible authenticity.
The storytelling style is similarly defined by an emphasis on realism. The film never feels like it’s preaching, or in any way trying to manipulate a moral response to events. The realities of the various tribulations and conflicts are elucidated without fuss or ceremony, and Murphy avoids any creative or stylistic embellishments that would distract from the intimate human experience that is at the core of the film. The one minor exception to this is the musical score – sad music for sad moments, happy music for happy moments – which can feel at odds with what is otherwise an effective and understated narrative method.
What Tomorrow Brings impressively retains a coherent thematic concern as it balances the differing perspectives of its characters. Each have their own personal tribulations to overcome; Rihala, the mayor’s daughter, has her education disrupted for months on end as her family promise her in marriage to somebody three times her age, while Nazima, a teacher, faces the prospect of her husband leaving her as they try, continually in vain, to conceive a child. But it is the school that unites them, this place of solace and solidarity that is living proof of what firm hope and dogged determination can realise. We see how, over a fairly short time period, the village elders go from nurturing an engendered antipathy to female education, to actually taking some pride in the school; at the very least recognising its beneficial impact on the village’s reputation.
But parallel to this hope is a bleakness. While the younger girls look to the school as the key to another life, founder Razia Jan is all too aware of the inevitable insecurity of her achievement in a country barely a decade-and-a-half removed from Taliban rule. Razia’s frank and impassioned accounts convey the non-linear nature of progress. She relays her memories of Kabul as the ‘Paris of Central Asia’, in a time when she could wear what she desired and ride a bicycle into town; a stark contrast to the years that followed. When multiple cycles of oppression and liberation can occur in a single lifetime, the work of people like Razia becomes less a means-to-an-end and more an interminable way of life. It’s both an inspiring and disheartening sentiment beautifully conveyed through the story of this single school, the significance of which ripples out beyond borders.
Films like What Tomorrow Brings are an antidote to a growing tendency within many developed societies to generalise and over-simplify Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. In watching these films, we recognise the overwhelming complexity and nonuniformity of any kind of societal change. In using a minimalist approach to shooting and storytelling, Murphy embodies an attitude that embraces the complexity and would rather ask questions than make conclusions.
‘What Tomorrow Brings’ was screened as part of the Bertha DocHouse ‘Lives Of Others’ season.