2007 SUNDANCE WORLD DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION FEATURE! In 2005, after the U.S.-led invasion, Afghanistan held its first parliamentary elections in 35 years. It was also the first election in which women were allowed to vote. One of the candidates running for office in the Farah province is a woman named Malalai Joya, who was banished from the Loya Jirga two years earlier for calling for the prosecution of warlords present at the council. Since then, she has survived four assassination attempts and lives under the constant threat of violence from her enemies. “Enemies of Happiness” follows Joya on her historic and increasingly dangerous campaign.
Director Eva Mulvad gives us a detailed, albeit brief (the film runs just under and hour) look at the difficulties Joya faces in her run for Parliament. Her bodyguards, who also double as her campaign staff, have to defend themselves from harassment even while performing the seemingly innocuous task of putting up posters. All the while, we’re offered a glimpse at the larger problems in conducting elections in a country where the majority of the population is illiterate, polling locations are several hours away, and where voters and even some candidates are routinely bribed, threatened, or assaulted. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to do so: watching people go to such lengths to cast a simple ballot when half the voters in this country can’t be bothered to drag themselves away from “Deal or No Deal” for 15 minutes to do the same makes me ashamed to be American.
The sad irony is that Joya, by our standards, isn’t that radical a crusader. Her platform consists primarily of promoting greater rights for women (she doesn’t think they should be forced to wear the burka, for example) and exposing the corrupt who are running for office or currently in power. For this, she is called a prostitute and forced to travel in an armed convoy to make campaign speeches.
In spite of all that, her supporters seek her out. One woman, who claims to be 100-years old and an ex-mujahedin, walks two hours to encourage her. Joya also fulfills a more traditional role, that of village mediator. In addition to recording her speeches (it’s too dangerous to appear in person in some outlying locations) and coordinating her campaign, she helps resolve marital disputes and negotiate with the family of a young girl who doesn’t want to be forced to marry an 80-year old warlord.
Mulvad spends a great deal of time on these incidents, which – while demonstrative of Joya’s skills as a diplomat and the high esteem in which she’s held – leaves relatively little time to show the workings behind the campaign itself in greater detail. She treats the problems Joya faces quite matter-of-factly, when the majority of her audience would probably interested in seeing more. And aside from two or three central characters, we never learn any names.
“Enemies of Happiness” ends on something of a hopeful note, and yet – knowing what most of us do about the troubles returning to Afghanistan – it’s hard not to despair that the country will ever free itself from the grip of the corrupt and intolerant.