The Doll


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Doll
"There's a lot of natural comedy here but it's balanced by the tragedy of Asil's situation as she comes to seem more and more out of her depth."

Asil is going to get married. At least, that's the idea. A man saw her in her father's photography studio and was so taken with her that he asked if she could marry his son. At least, that's the story. As Elahe Esmaili’s documentary unfolds - not always in linear order - stories become more and more complicated, with nothing quite what it seemed. When Asil asserts that she's very mature for her age, one begins to think that - comparatively - she may be right, but she is still only 15.

The Doll is billed as a film about child marriage but although it has a lot to say on that subject, no such union actually takes place. What is being proposed, in the first instance, is an engagement. This makes it more socially acceptable for Asil and her beau to spend time together, and it also means that if, as her grandmother comes to suspect, she's embarked on a secret relationship with him already, the attendant risks are kept to a minimum. Is this really a sweet teenage romance, then? Perhaps not. As it turns out, the boyfriend is significantly older and has almost finished college. Though he initially seems to share a lot of Asil's interests and support her getting an education, he gradually begins to put pressure on her to conform. Her dream of the perfect marriage begins to look more and more like an arrangement in which she would forget her own college ambitions, dress conservatively and stay in the house all the time.

At the heart of this twisty little story is Asil's father, Alireza, who has been divorced by her mother for reasons that are still disputed and who wants to marry a girlfriend who may or may not have been around before the split. There's enough material here for a lengthy soap opera series, packed into just 32 minutes, and Esmaili teases it out with real skill through a series of interviews in which every participant clearly believes they're getting the viewers on their side. The context may be Iranian but many of the issues - and the type of complaints that people have about each other - are universal.

There's a lot of natural comedy here but it's balanced by the tragedy of Asil's situation as she comes to seem more and more out of her depth, with only her little brother really putting her safety first, and him in the process of absorbing paternalistic values which would further deprive her of agency. Right from the opening credits, when Here Comes The Sun plays in the background, she's seen by everybody as a little darlin', with even the boyfriend buying her a series of plush animals and childish trinkets to secure her affections. On the one hand she still has childish traits (slightly overplayed by the extensive use of home movie footage from her earlier years); on the other, the way she is infantalised by those around her makes it even harder for her to assert herself, and she hasn't a hope of unravelling all this.

Esmaili has a history of tackling issues around women's rights in her work, but this film is never merely didactic. She shows rather than tells us how unready Asil is for marriage. The caveat, if there is one, is that nobody else seems ready either. With a wealth of social insights packed into what is equally interesting as a family story, The Doll is a rich piece of documentary filmmaking and well worth looking out for.

Reviewed on: 26 Apr 2021
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After consulting with his relatives, a 35-year-old father consents to the marriage of his 14-year-old daughter. With individuals having different perspectives, his family grapples with the decision.

Director: Elahe Esmaili

Year: 2021

Runtime: 32 minutes

Country: Iran


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