Ayaneh: Nicolas Greinacher’s Topical Short Packs A Punch
Ayaneh is the latest short film from award-winning Swedish Director Nicolas Greinacher, which recently came off a few wins at the Oscar-qualifying Rhode Island International Film Festival and received theatrical screenings at the Arena Cinelounge in Hollywood. This topical drama about rebelling against cultural norms packs a lot into its short runtime, and it is sure to stay with you long after it cuts to black.
Runtime: 14 minutes
Synopsis: Set in Switzerland, our story follows Ayaneh (Afsaneh Dehrouyeh), a young refugee from Afghanistan. One day at a public swimming pool she meets Anna (Ladina von Frisching) and instantly feels attracted to her. As the relationship between the two women develops, Ayaneh is confronted with growing resistance from her religious family.
Though it’s something we likely take for granted, learning to swim isn’t a luxury that Afghani women are afforded. In fact, women in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to swim at all, which is information that makes the opening images of Nicolas Greinacher’s short all the more striking. We see the titular Ayaneh dressed head to toe in a “burkini” as she makes her way out to the public pool. We watch her eyes drift to the frames of other female bodies in the locker room shower — but is she merely noticing the cultural differences in swim attire (as the other women wear traditional one-piece suits), or is she drawn more by desire?
Once Ayaneh meets Anna, we begin to see that it’s a bit of both. Through their conversation, we learn that Ayaneh is a refugee from Afghanistan living with her mother and brother, and that she’s possibly had her eye on Anna — who swims at the pool often — for awhile. There’s an undeniable sweetness to their first encounter, which instantly pulls Ayaneh (and by proxy the viewer) in. Her romanticism toward Anna, though, is much deeper than a surface level sexual awakening. With a name that’s eerily similar to Ayaneh’s, Anna also represents the kind of life and freedom that Afghani women aren’t given, and it’s this type of freedom Ayaneh is after. Once Anna gifts Ayaneh her old one-piece bathing suit, her want to transcend her cultural barriers become even more intensified.
The sweetness and generosity of Anna is in sharp contrast to Ayaneh’s home life. Her brother, Haroun (Mo Ahmadi), is pretty militant about staying true to the culture they were forced to leave behind. He’s vehemently against Ayaneh swimming, whether she’s fully covered or not. At least her mother (Mithra Zahedi) is a bit more forgiving and even gives Ayaneh her permission to swim at the all-women class at the public pool. However, once Ayaneh’s family learn that she’s decided to swim without full coverage — or as the family puts it, “dressed like a whore” — we find that both mom and brother are firmly rooted in the old ways.
When you factor in Ayaneh’s sexual orientation, which is presented to us through dream sequences, her cultural dilemma becomes all the more harrowing. The LGBTQ elements to the short add layers to Ayaneh’s situation, but they’re pushed firmly to the periphery where they stay out of focus. This is because the film really has less to do about being gay or straight and more to do with defying the societal norms of a particular culture; the two just so happen to fit nicely hand in hand. We know that if Ayaneh’s family reacts this strongly to a one-piece bathing, that they’ll surely disown her if her deeper truth ever surfaced. It’s a subtle way to intensify the stakes, and it gives Ayaneh’s struggle more justification; she’s not just fighting for the right to swim or wear a bathing suit, she’s fighting to be accepted for who she really is, and she’s tired of hiding.
Seeing Ayaneh’s internal struggle and witnessing her persecution easily binds the viewer to her and her journey. Her trajectory is made all the more cathartic by Afsaneh Dehrouyeh’s powerhouse performance, which flexes tremendous range. Greinacher’s effortlessly naturalistic direction makes you feel like your there, and cinematographer Carlotta Holy-Steinemann give the visuals a nice pop, full of sun-lit aesthetic. The script, written by Greinacher with assistance from Oscar-nominated Swiss-Iranian filmmaker Talkhon Hamzavi, also provides a firm backbone to explore the film’s central ideas.
Events eventually boil to the point of eruption, but the narrative takes a soft poetic swerve in its conclusion, which gives Ayaneh’s story the perfect possible ending. But will she back down, or rebel against her cultural confines? You’ll just have to watch the short to find out.
At the end of the day, Ayaneh is a quiet stunner that really packs a punch due to the strength and ingenuity of its ending. It’s a film that gratifies and promotes discussion, all while using the power of cinema to tell a moving story. Definitely give this short a day in court if you have the opportunity.
Rating: 4.5 bathing suits outta 5.
What do you think? Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!