There’s some humor in the documentary Donkey in Lahore, but mostly I experienced it as quite an interesting psychological study of an unusual relationship.
The protagonist is a young Australian part time puppeteer named Brian. On a trip to Pakistan with a puppeteer troupe, he’d met and fallen for a local Lahore teenager named Amber, who is decidedly more traditional Muslim and Pakistani than one might guess from the name. For the year or two since, they’d kept up a long distance romance via phone and online. Now they want to marry.
The bulk of the movie then is about their trying to get married and their trying to figure out where and how they can live together once they are married. We see their relationship developing, and in some ways collapsing, about 80% from his perspective and 20% from hers.
Neither is an unsympathetic character, and there are elements to their story that really are romantic and appealing. But mostly the relationship somehow doesn’t feel right from the beginning. Brian is a nice enough guy in his way, but there’s just not that much depth there. I don’t think he’s retarded per se, but there are at least some emotional issues or social inadequacies going on with him.
He’s interviewed multiple times with his parents and his lesbian sister, and everyone seems to get along, yet at other times the way he speaks of them and their lack of a role in the whole thing with this Pakistani girl makes it seem more like he’s estranged from them. The parents are mildly odd, and it comes out that years earlier they’d taken the family as a whole into some weird Christian thing that turned out to be a cult, but they don’t seem completely loopy, nor evil certainly.
I suppose they’re “off” to about the same degree as he is, come to think of it.
He seems to virtually always be by himself. There’s some indication he’s had some involvement with a Goth nightlife, but other than that he’s never shown with friends. Nor is there any reason to believe he’s dated much if at all in his life.
He’s unemployed for part of the movie and working at some menial job for part of it. Though there are allusions to certain money issues in connection with his relationship, he doesn’t seem to have any trouble making ends meet. I suppose it’s possible he’s getting money from his family or some kind of government assistance program (for people with some low level mental illness?).
He just comes across as a slacker flake to a large extent. He sometimes talks in grand, romantic terms about his beloved Amber, yet I never got the impression she, or much of anything, really affects him at a deep level, maybe because there’s little or no sign he has a deep level.
He makes a big show of converting to Islam, even changing his name to Aamir, but again it’s like he’s getting some superficial satisfaction out of playacting and that’s about it. The Muslim clergyman who guides him through his conversion cautions him that one must not convert due to some earthly consideration like pleasing a girl or her family, but only because one feels an undeniable sense of being chosen by Allah and really needing to change one’s life. He nods along solemnly like yes, yes I understand, but pretty clearly there really is no motivation deeper than what the clergyman spotted. Being a Muslim to him is like being a Goth, just a frivolous sort of youthful experimental role to take on that lets you dress funny and do and say exotic things on occasion.
And for that matter, does he really have deep feelings for Amber? I’m skeptical. Clearly he doesn’t know her well in the conventional sense (he barely knows her at all), but for that matter I don’t see anything that tells me they had some kind of deep, intuitive, “love at first sight” connection in their brief time together when he visited Pakistan. With her broken English they can only communicate awkwardly, and it’s not like there’s a lot of significant non-verbal communication going on either.
Indeed for the first half or so of the film, Amber is little more than a cipher. She seems to have led a traditional, sheltered life. There is no sense that she is more sophisticated or has more on the ball than you’d expect of a teenage girl in those circumstances.
Actually, having just seen the documentary The Glass House, I’d say she seems to have decidedly less substance to her than the girls in that film, pretty much any of whom I could more easily imagine sitting down and having a meaningful conversation with.
Brian (Aamir) spends much of his time trying to negotiate with her family for permission to marry her and permission for her to return with him to live in Australia. He does this in part from a distance and in part on return visits to Pakistan.
At first they give him permission on the condition that he and Amber live their married life in Pakistan. He agrees, but shortly thereafter announces that it would cost him too much to get a place to live in Lahore. I don’t get the impression he did a whole lot of research into that or really had any desire to live in Pakistan; it’s more the kind of exotic idea that briefly seemed to him a grand romantic gesture to leave one’s homeland to be with one’s great love, but that he then quickly lost interest in.
So then they agree to let him marry their daughter without the living in Pakistan condition, though almost immediately they think better of this and announce a new condition that he can only take her back to Australia if he arranges for them to emigrate to Australia as well.
So are they just cynically trying to use their serendipitous connection with a foreigner from a “rich” country as a ticket to a financially better life for themselves? For a while that’s a possible interpretation, but soon it’s pretty clear they’re just simple people making it up as they go along. Their motive for wanting to come along probably isn’t anything particularly self-serving, but is instead a concern that if left alone with just this guy in an unfamiliar far away country, their daughter could end up anywhere from giving up her faith and leading a dissolute life to being sold into white slavery.
And soon enough they drop that condition anyway.
I think they, like the couple themselves, at times have a positive attitude about this, and are trying to have an even more positive attitude, but never fully overcome serious misgivings.
As things move on, the major stumbling block is getting the paperwork sorted out for Amber to move to Australia. The process seemingly is aided by their going through a sort of Muslim pre-wedding ceremony in Pakistan that results in their being semi-married, but then it stalls again.
Before and after this ceremony, it’s just a lot of waiting around and getting frustrated with the other parties for not doing what needs to be done to get the immigration issues settled. Really though I don’t know that anyone is trying all that hard. It’s like no one fully believes in this relationship any more, yet there’s enough momentum to it that no one knows quite how to stop it.
Amber especially is concerned that it’s all a terrible mistake, and that she’s about to place herself and her future in the hands of someone she barely knows, fully dependent on him in a foreign country. I think she and her family realize at some level that this guy is not some suave, rich, desirable foreigner who’ll sweep her off her feet and give her a great life. Perhaps they can’t see as clearly as the viewer that he’s something of a social misfit dweeb with emotional problems who couldn’t attract anyone much above a naïve teenage foreigner, but I don’t think they’re completely clueless on that point.
It’s strangely fascinating watching this relationship become more dysfunctional. A therapist tells Brian what I’ve been thinking the entire movie—which is that this is more a superficial romantic fantasy for him than any genuine deep love and connection with another human being—but it continues. Amber talks openly on camera about having serious misgivings about it all, but it continues.
Ultimately he returns to Pakistan and they have a real wedding so they can be more fully married. He’s sort of into it, but Amber’s attitude that she’s being led to the gallows eventually rubs off on him, and by the time they’re in the back seat together leaving the wedding site, they both look like people on the worst date of their lives, unable to even look at each other.
In the second half of the movie, you get more of a sense that Amber actually has some substance, some potential. There’s no sense that it’s this substance that made Brian fall for her initially—I don’t think he can recognize substance any more than he has substance. But I felt like there was more to her than had been apparent earlier.
Certainly I think that if one of them grows up to achieve anything significant in life or to develop into an emotionally deep person, it’s a lot more likely to be her. She’s still naïve and at the early stages of development, but she’s the one that at least has upside. If she hasn’t already outgrown him, she likely will shortly.
Early on back in Australia she talks openly about hating it there and wishing they’d never gotten married. The movie ends a few months later with signs that the seemingly doomed marriage might not be quite dead yet, that maybe she’s made her peace with the situation.
Or more likely a temporary truce.
This is not the story of the great romance that maybe the set-up would lead one to expect; it’s far more the story of a failure than of a storybook success. Yet there’s no villain. Really everyone involved seems to be a decent human being, but they’re operating with very limited tools, with very limited understanding of the relevant cultural issues, religious issues, mental and emotional health issues, etc. to understand each other and the situation, and as a result they get a lot more wrong than right.
Donkey in Lahore is a consistently interesting, quirky little documentary from start to finish. Worthy of a recommendation.