Sara – Queer East Film Festival 2024

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Ismail Basbeth

Elegant, but slow, this film from Indonesia about a trans woman coming home for her father’s funeral certainly looks good, but the story can’t quite fill the 100-minute running time. Sara gives long lingering looks over the river which separates her village from the city, and while atmospheric up to a point, there are just too many of these shots making the film glacial in pace.

Sara arrives just in time for the burial of her father. Dressed chicly, she stands out from the other female villagers and she is unsure of what role to play in the gendered rituals of mourning. Her old friend Ayu, supporting her arm, cares for Sara like a nurse her patient.

Ayu also informs Sara that her mother is in a grief-stricken coma, triggered by her husband’s death, meaning that Sara will have to stay in the village longer than she’d planned. When her mother eventually wakes up, she suffers from amnesia with no memory that her husband has died.

Rather than telling the truth, Sara goes along with her mother’s convictions that her husband is still alive, but has got lost somehow in coming home. Indeed, everyone lies to the mother. Her fellow worshippers at the village mosque tell her that they haven’t seen him instead of gently reiterating that he has died.

Another lie that seems to have been told to Sara’s mother is that her son died from asthma when he left for the city. She does not recognise Sara as her daughter and yearns instead for her son. Guided by the imam, Sara tells her mother that she is the imam’s niece and come to look after her until the return of the father and son.

The rest of the narrative runs as expected, but it’s still heart-breaking to watch, helped by the delicate and understated performance of trans actor Asha Smara Darra. If only she were given more to do than stare melancholically in mirrors or wistfully out across the river. Her relationship with the Islamic faith is the far more interesting strand here, but director Ismail Basbeth wants this to be a family drama. However, refreshingly her fellow villagers appear to accept Sara completely, despite the imam’s suggestion that she stay away from the mosque.

Ayu, who harbours an unresolved desire for Sara, is played with great compassion by Mian Tiara. She tries to be a faithful friend to Sara, but the kiss she steals by the river subtly demonstrates that she is still in love with her childhood sweetheart. No character explicitly reveals their hopes and fears in conversations; instead, everything is hinted at or implied with Basbeth’s camera at a respectful distance. This strategy perhaps puts too much distance between the story and the audience.

Sara joins a recent grouping of films that chart trans people’s homecomings. Last year, in Monica, a trans woman (Trace Lysette) goes back to care for her dying mother while this year, in Close To You, a trans man (Elliot Page) returns to his childhood house to attend his father’s birthday celebrations. In many ways, Sara is most like the latter as Page’s character also meets an old flame on his journey home, complicating matters around sexuality. It’s good news that trans films have moved on from transition narratives and now examine what comes next in trans people’s lives.

Queer East Festival 2024 takes place 17 – 28 April across venues in London.

The Reviews Hub Score

Elegant, but slow

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The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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