The Exam

Director: Shawkat Amin Korki
Writers: Shawkat Amin Korki, Mohamedreza Gohari
Cinematographer: Adib Sobhani
Editor: Ebrahim Saeedi

Appearing for a crucial exam can be an experience of stomach-churning dread, sweaty palms and dizzying anxieties, tensions that director Shawkat Amin Korki deftly leverages into a film in which the consequences of skipping that test are far worse.

Kurdish teenager Rojin (Vania Salar) has two options — pass a series of tough university examinations or be married off to a stranger. Her older sister Shilan (Avan Jamal), trapped in an abusive marriage with a controlling husband, is so desperate to help Rojin avoid a similar fate that she concludes examination fraud is the solution. So widespread and established is the con that a well-oiled underground organisation in the country has it down to a fine art, one that involves double agents in schools, microscopic Bluetooth devices and multiple backup plans for when the situation inevitably spirals out of control. There are moments when this 89-minute-long drama unfolds like a high-stakes crime caper, with moments of suspense arising from the ever-looming threat of discovery, but the despair of its protagonists tempers this excitement, serving as a grim reminder of the circumstances forcing them into a life of crime. When university officials ramp up their security measures with each subsequent exam, which heightens the risk of Rojin being caught and pushes Shilan to participate in increasingly creative schemes to help her evade detection, Korki effectively conveys the sisters’ internal turmoil and the atmosphere of oppressive fear in which they live, careful not to invite judgement, but instead elicit sympathy for their plight.

The Exam depicts a society in which women’s lives are subject to the whims of the men around them, from male cab drivers who charge the sisters arbitrary fares to their father, who unilaterally decides to sell the family home without consulting them. By detailing a patriarchal world in which women have no control over their situation, and framing the decision to cheat as the first act that affords them some, Korki ensures that its ethical considerations don’t weigh too heavily on viewers’ minds. The male characters who set out to thwart the sisters’ attempts at fraud are either revealed to have ulterior motives beneath their veneer of righteousness, or a background of privilege that blinkers them to life’s harsher realities. The sisters aren’t even insulated against the wars and strife of neighboring nations — in one scene, Shilan, attempting to sell her jewelry so she can scrape together enough to pay the test leakers, can’t get a good price because frantic Syrian refugees have saturated the market by selling off their gold possessions too.

Participating in academic fraud gives the sisters some autonomy, though the film frames their role as a means of merely surviving, rather than thriving. Rojin and Shilan know they can’t beat the system. At best, The Exam disquietingly suggests, they can only hope to exploit its loopholes.

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