Berlinale 2023 Review: “Al Murhaqoon (The Burdened)” Takes On the Weight of the World

Ahmed (Khaled Hamdan) and Isra’a (Aber Mohammed) aren’t liking what they’re hearing, though it’s what they should expect upon telling others that they’re pregnant in “Al Murhaqoon (The Burdened).” Already the proud parents of three young children, a fourth isn’t the blessing that their friends and family consider it to be when Ahmed was recently laid off from his job in the TV industry and has yet to receive two months’ worth of back pay and buying the basic necessities has become a challenge, let alone affording the tuition for their eldest son Nawar (Omar Elyas). The couple only mentions the pregnancy, less than six weeks in, to test out the waters in trying to obtain an abortion in their native Yemen where finding a doctor to perform the procedure in the ultra-religious country is a mighty big ask.

Director Amr Gamal appears to be well-aware that the opportunity to see inside Yemen isn’t at all a common one, which is why for as much time as he spends zooming in on Ahmed and Isra’a, slowly suffocating in the region where inflation has been brutal and a military presence remains everywhere as a civil war continues to rage on, he’ll zoom out to take in the cityscape as if allowing the film to breathe. It gives a unique feeling to “Al Murhaqoon” where even a small interruption in income could so thoroughly derail a middle class family, yet such hardship has become accepted as part of a daily life.

Nothing about Ahmed and Isra’a’s life is made to seem extraordinary, though things shouldn’t have to be this hard. Ahmed has resorted to driving a rideshare van, for which he assumes all liability when a military vehicle rear-ends him and he simply shrugs off having to pay for repairs, while Isra’a reserves any internal frustration she has in trying to end the pregnancy for private conversations with her husband, unemotionally pawning jewelry to raise money for the operation that may not even come to pass and simply telling her kids they can’t have eggs for breakfast when such food is now a luxury. Still, it’s quietly devastating how any pride the couple has is gradually wrung from them, particularly when Isra’a has to appeal to her last resort, Muna (Samah Alamrani), a longtime friend and a doctor who could perform the procedure, yet hardly wants to complicate her relationship with her or Muna, who keeps a prayer rug in her office, with God.

Muna emerges as a pivotal figure in ways well beyond the narrative at hand, representing strides towards modernity in Yemen in terms of her profession and the accompanying fact that she drives to work when that remains a rarity in this part of the Middle East, yet still beholden to the old ways of thinking when she’s obligated to cover her face with a hijab any time a man enters the room. Gamal subtly notes these dichotomies all over the place, actively dismantling monolithic notions of a society that could be easily seen as being stuck in the past, but making the large abstract forces that continue to hold back progress so clearly visible in Ahmed and Isra’a’s experience and “Al Murhaqoon” may detail stumbling blocks in the culture, but it elegantly lays out the ways in which there could be a path forward.

“Al Murhaqoon (The Burdened)” will screen at Berlinale on February 20th at 4 pm at the International, February 21st at 10 pm at the Cubix 7, February 22nd at 4 pm at the Cubix 5, February 23rd at 6:30 pm at Cubix 9 and February 26th at 4 pm at the Cubix 5.

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