The Red Suitcase [subtitled]

This year I saw at the theater all three packages of 2023 Academy Award-nominated short films—animated, live action, and documentary. I’d rank the animated package somewhere around the middle compared to the previous years’ packages that I’ve seen, and the documentary package the same or a bit higher. These packages tend to be quite strong, so that means I was fairly impressed with the animated films and even a little more so with the documentaries.

But I thought the live action short films were especially good, the best of the three sets this year. All five nominees in this category were at least pretty good, and two of them in particular were excellent—Night Ride and The Red Suitcase. It would be hard to pick between them, but if I had to I think I’d go with The Red Suitcase, as it hit me even a little harder emotionally. (Neither of these two in fact won the Oscar. I liked the winner fine, but I’d have ranked it no better than third in a very strong field.)

16 year old Ariane has just arrived, alone, at an airport in Luxembourg from Iran. She is visibly nervous, and has a single suitcase that contains, among other things, her drawings and art supplies.

She exchanges texts with her father back home, who wants to know what’s taking so long, as the husband for her arranged marriage (a middle-aged, assertive, businessman type) says there is no sign of her yet. She stalls, as she clearly doesn’t like the whole idea of this marriage.

Then she comes to a decision: She takes off her hijab and lets her hair down, which both makes it harder for the would-be husband to spot her and identify her, and marks a kind of symbolic disobedience or rejection of the role that has been imposed upon her. She cashes in what money she has for Euros and hurries off to a shuttle bus, all the while looking around her in a panic for the man who was to meet her and marry her.

He is in fact pursuing her, looking all over this part of the airport, questioning people. She slips off the shuttle bus when she sees him approaching, and hides in the baggage compartment. He doesn’t find her, but he finds and confiscates her suitcase with her treasured art possessions.

For me this was an edge-of-my-seat film from start to finish. I was totally caught up in this poor girl’s plight. She is obviously distraught, striking out on her own in circumstances that are absolutely not conducive to it.

I mean, think about the situation she is in. She’s 16 and is a girl who grew up in Iran, in a conservative, traditionalist enough family to still practice things like arranged marriages, so it’s a safe bet she has led a sheltered life and has even less knowledge of the world and even fewer survival skills or street smarts than the average 16 year old. She is alone, in a foreign country where she knows no one, doesn’t know the language, doesn’t know the law, and doesn’t know what resources, if any, might be available to someone in her position or how to access them. She has little money, and really no awareness of how much she has. (When she exchanges her money in the airport for Euros, and when she pays to get on the shuttle bus, she basically just holds all she’s got out in front of her and trusts the other person to take the appropriate amount, as she clearly has no clue.) She no longer has her suitcase, so she’s down to the clothes on her back basically.

Let’s say she succeeds in eluding her pursuer (far from guaranteed) and takes this shuttle to whatever nearby town it goes to and she gets off there. Now what? About all she can hope for—and it’s a long shot—is that somehow she’s able to communicate her plight to someone and they direct her to some government agency or charitable organization or something that will assist her. But what kind of assistance? Enough for a 16 year old stranger with nothing to somehow build a new life?

She’s fleeing a life she deemed too horrible to accept, but as much as I’d like to it’s hard to believe this fire will turn out significantly better than that frying pan.

There’s a very brief moment in this film that especially stood out to me. The would-be husband and her father have been communicating, and enough time has passed with no word from her that the father knows she must have bolted. He sends her a text pleading with her to please respond, please don’t run away, that he’ll do anything she wants, she doesn’t have to go through with the marriage, she can pursue her education, just please don’t disappear.

It’s such an intense human moment, because you realize it’s one of two things: One, he’s lying. He’s telling her whatever he calculates will bring her back, and once she’s back in their clutches she’ll be forced to marry the man she has been sold to. Two, he’s in a panic because the enormity of losing his daughter and knowing it’s his own fault has hit him, and now he’s just scrambling to undo it any way he can because he loves her.

The first possibility is almost too evil to contemplate, that someone could be so cold as to deceive his own daughter like that and condemn her to a life she clearly would do anything to avoid. The second possibility is heartbreaking, that this man could forever lose a daughter he loves.

She knows him a lot better than we do, and her response is to quietly switch off her phone, so maybe that tells us which possibility is more likely.

Like I say, The Red Suitcase really got through to me emotionally. Strong recommendation.