How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Western?
By Krithika VaragurFebruary 22, 2019
Several films in the last decade have run with this conceit: riffing on the masculinist genre, they don’t merely contain women, their plots are generated by women and their stakes are for women. These recent films include Meek’s Cutoff (2010), True Grit (2010), and The Keeping Room (2014), which pick up the thread of idiosyncratic forerunners like Johnny Guitar (1954) and Forty Guns (1957). But two films that really crack open the feminist Western come from unlikely places: Indonesia and Pakistan. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017, dir. Mouly Surya) is a “satay Western” set on the desert island of Sumba, and My Pure Land (2017, dir. Sarmad Masud) is based on a real property conflict in Sindh, Pakistan. Both explore the possibilities of women-centric Westerns and attest to the quintessentially American genre’s enduring vitality abroad.
Marlina is the story of a young widow who avenges her attempted gang rape by poisoning and beheading her perpetrators. Its eponymous heroine carries her rapist’s severed head on horseback across a sunbaked island in an attempt to report her assault and seek justice. The film uses the Western’s genre conventions like a Trojan horse to relate a story from an indigenous society that is exotic even to most Indonesians.
Sumba is a dry island between Bali and Timor-Leste, many of whose inhabitants still practice an animist religion called Marapu. Marlina is one of them. By the time you’ve registered the click of her horse’s hooves, the panoramic shots of a dry landscape, and the monosyllabic dialogue, you are already deep within a story of a woman’s brutal assault. Her society is isolated, mystical, and patriarchal. Her intended rapists make her cook them chicken stew before they assault her, a demand whose logic is taken at face value. The characters wear red and blue Sumbanese hand-looms. The corpse of her recently deceased husband sits in Marlina’s modest house, wrapped in a woven shroud, which reflects the real Sumba tradition of keeping the dead around until you can afford their elaborate funeral.
In swift opening scenes, Marlina cooks dinner for and then murders five of her seven potential rapists, taking the head of their leader with her as totem and evidence. Marlina is a textbook genre protagonist: terse and impassive, she treads softly on a barren landscape, intent on vengeance. The lushly shot film revels in the notion of revenge as a feminist project.
My Pure Land, the feature debut of the British-Pakistani director Masud, is ripped from a real story of a mother and her daughters who defended their home from hundreds of armed bandits in rural eastern Pakistan. Filmed in Pakistan, it was the United Kingdom’s first Urdu-language entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. My Pure Land is based on the country’s ubiquitous and dangerous property disputes, of which there are over one million pending cases today, according to a title card in the film. Its major set piece is an armed standoff in which the teenage sisters Nazo and Saeda, their mother, and a young male friend fight off the sisters’ uncle and his hired squad of 200 armed bandits. The backstory is filled in, somewhat unevenly, through flashbacks: the girls’ uncle promises to take the house; their father teaches the girls to shoot; the uncle gets the father thrown in jail. In a typical Western move, the father tries to resolve the property through legal channels but is rebuffed. “Until one or two people die,” says the local police chief, there’s nothing they can do. They must take justice into their own hands.
My Pure Land’s breakout star is Suhaee Abro, a classically trained dancer, who plays Nazo, the elder daughter. Holding off the siege in elegant salvars, a long braid, and ramrod posture, Nazo reveals girlish reluctance in flashbacks, but, by the time of the main action, has become a terse, hardened sharpshooter. “In this world, nothing is more important than your honor,” says the girls’ father, who raises them like sons before he’s imprisoned. “Not even your life.” The dialogue would not be out of place in an American frontier town, but it shows why the Western stands to benefit from a change of location: it’s no longer a throwback. A Western set in a contemporary honor-code-bound society in Sindh or Sumba doesn’t have to be a period piece.
The film’s plot echoes that of The Keeping Room, an American nouveau Western from 2014 in which two sisters and their slave try to defend their farmstead near the end of the Civil War. (The Keeping Room co-stars Hailee Steinfeld, who has become something of a subgenre heroine, also starring in True Grit.) While the American property dispute had to be situated more than a century ago, My Pure Land is contemporary and requires no such transposition. Watching these films, it seems obvious that the genre that most celebrates and dramatizes vengeance would prove ripe for feminist storytelling. These “feminist Westerns” focus on women seeking justice, while retaining many of the visual and narrative tropes of the genre. Righteous fury is their topos; redress is their aim.
Marlina’s last scene is of a childbirth. If it is a little on the nose to follow so many gruesome deaths with a birth, it nevertheless goes far beyond what one expects to see on the screen of a “Western.” It is a reminder that there is much more of women’s lives to be shown within the genre than bar maids and victims. In My Pure Land, the dacoit recruited by the girls’ uncle implies that if he lets his men into the house, they will probably rape his family members. It’s a chilling threat that, again, feels surprising for its inclusion: rape is not usually considered a problem in the Western. But as the girls’ uncle memorably says in a moment of frustration in My Pure Land: “It’s different, these women have guns!”
The so-called death of the Western is a periodic refrain of critics, who have been prematurely eulogizing the genre for decades: “The [Western] hero represents a way of life that is becoming antiquated,” wrote Pauline Kael of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in 1961. “The solitary defender of justice is the last of the line; the era of lawlessness is over, courts are coming in […] The Westerner, the loner, must take the law into his hands for one last time.” But the individual fighting for justice in a lawless world will never be out of date when there is a constantly replenished supply of lawless worlds.
And precisely because of the Western’s unusual saturation of visual and narrative tropes, the genre is capacious and adaptable. Marlina, for instance, is set in a barren land (but on an island, and in Indonesia); it features a gang of bandits (who ride motorbikes); and has horses (indigenous Sandalwood Ponies). My Pure Land also has a gang of bandits and wide-open dusty landscapes, as well as a property dispute and a prolonged shoot-out. The distinctive and repeated elements of the Western can foster creativity, much like the metrical constraints of a sonnet.
Indeed, the genre has always acquired new life abroad. Sergio Leone made A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the first Spaghetti Western, because he thought American Westerns were losing their edge. A foreign critical eye was also instrumental to constructing the genre itself. Film scholar Tom Conley has argued that French theoretical texts like André Bazin’s “The Evolution of the Western” were foundational to the Western’s genre identity. In this vein, Marlina’s director Mouly Surya, a 38-year-old Indonesian woman, said pithily at a press screening in Jakarta that she thought of “[her] Western as a lens into the Eastern.”
The ingenuity of these two films does not come at the expense of the American Western, which has been quietly pushing its own boundaries. Little Woods, a 2018 film by the American director Nia DaCosta, tells the story of two sisters trawling the boomtowns and desolate landscapes of North Dakota to get enough money for one of their abortions. Tessa Thompson, who starred in the film, described DaCosta’s vision for a “modern Western” that specifically addressed “the gendered experience of poverty.” Set in the present-day United States, it requires no major change of place or time, just of perspective. And though it is not focused on women, it’s irresistible to briefly also mention the Chinese film director Chloé Zhao’s virtuosic 2017 Western The Rider, which was set, filmed, and cast on-site at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — another community that would never have provided protagonists for the midcentury Western canon.
If there is anything that feels dated about the new feminist Westerns within the greater cultural moment, it is their focus on the lone crusader pursuing individual justice, as opposed to a broad coalition demanding structural change. The latter possibility has been the revelation and promise of #MeToo, as Moira Donegan wrote in the Guardian last year. “One approach is individualist, hard-headed, grounded in ideals of pragmatism, realism and self-sufficiency,” she writes. (These are the structuring values of the Western.) “The other is expansive, communal, idealistic and premised on the ideals of mutual interest and solidarity.” So while the pursuit of justice is certainly a resonant feminist narrative, we have been learning, of late and en masse, that it doesn’t have to be sought alone.
Does this doom the project of the feminist Western? I think not. The sea change in the pursuit of women’s justice comes only on the tails of thousands of single stories, the building blocks of the movement. Individual stories of injustice can do collective political work. Here’s to more feminist Westerns: may we make them, watch them, and create a world in which they really are all period pieces.
Krithika Varagur is an American journalist who often writes from and about Southeast Asia.
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