Reviewed by Alicia Glass
At the ripe old age of 12, Malay Muslim girl Zaffan is the first in her class to experience physical growth changes, and all the stigma that comes with them.
It’s virtually impossible to watch this film, beautifully shot in the Malay jungles and surrounding communities, and not cringe at all the restrictions placed upon Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal). And it’s everywhere, every single last place Zaffan is, there again she is shamed, shamed for something that literally happens to every girl in the entire world at one point or another (a few medical exceptions and our LGBTQ+ brethren noted). Her mother is a tyrant and her wrath can be biblical, Zaffan isn’t about to involve her indifferent father in her adolescence, and her school peers make everything a million times worse.
What is it about some particular girls in school, the ones that form the cliques around whatever current popular drama there is and then begin terrorizing the weak? Zaffan being the first among them all to experience her period, in such a dramatic and a you-can’t-unsee-that fashion, and all her peers saw it too, it’s certainly terrifying for some, to realize they too will have to go through that. Then again, perhaps the former best friends of Zaffan, Farah (Deena Ezral) and Miriam (Piqa), are somehow insanely jealous that Zaffan will now blossom and begin to experience the fullness of life outside the school and the sad little community houses.
Or not? The way Farah goes from mean-girl ousting Zaffan at the school and the cadet squad, to actually physically assaulting Zaffan while spouting religious propaganda, seems more like insanity and less like jealousy to me. The other cadets and students blindly following Farah’s orders, even sad little Miriam, is completely to be expected, and if this were real life, is pathetically still exactly what would happen. They’re drones, and Farah seems to have elected herself queen bee.
Nobody expected Zaffan’s response to any of this. Her reactions to the horrifying changes happening to her poor body, completely beyond her control, the disgust and the embarrassment, and then the absolute fury at the manner in which she is treated, are all superbly displayed in a way any of us can sympathize with. The worlds population of women who experience periods cringed in empathy as Zaffan tries so hard to hide from the grossness of it all; they gnashed their teeth in anticipation as Zaffan grows more and more bestial in her righteous rage; and we all, every single last one of us, cheered when the severed head of that charlatan exorcist went flying from Zaffan’s claws.
As should be entirely expected from the Malaysian censors, their conservativism basically made the version of the movie shown after their cutting-floor treatment something the filmmaker disowned. It’s never comfortable in any culture to take a magnified view of the stigmatization of the whole period mess, and even harder to view any such practices objectively. Filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu does so with humor, with an almost sadistic glee, because really, after watching all that Zaffan is subjected to on a daily basis, who could blame her for trying to literally claw her way to some freedom!