Biweekly Binge: Unbelievable - In Marie and Mariam we trust
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is Unbelievable, streaming on Netflix
Both Netflix's Unbelievable, created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, and Tunisian film Beauty and the Dogs (2017), directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, use zombie analogy to talk about trust, not only in the context of sexual assault but also in terms of empathy.
In Unbelievable, Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) talks to her court appointed therapist about the movie Zombieland, a monologue that — in a tiny piece of great writing and filmmaking — morphs into her explaining loss of trust in people around her post the trauma of rape and everything that came after. She equates it to the zombie apocalypse where you are left to fend for yourself, you cannot trust the other human who only looks like a human but could very well be a zombie baying for your blood. Total anarchy where turning on each other is a muscle memory.
By now, you know that Unbelievable is based on the Pulitzer winning The Marshall Project article about a woman who reported that she was raped at knife point and then claimed that she made it all up. That's our Marie.
In Ben Hania's Beauty and the Dogs, Mariam goes through hell trying to report rape. A man she befriends that night just before the incident, tries to help her. He says he'll share the surveillance video in his possession — showing the faces of the men who raped her — on Facebook because that is the only way to identify them. And as a hypothetical scenario, she asks him, if there exists a video of the assault, would he share it on Facebook? It's now the man's turn for a monologue. He asks her, "Do you watch zombie films?" When she replies in the negative, he goes on to say that if she ever sees him share the video then she can rest assured that he had turned into a zombie. The cord between the brain and spinal cord has been severed, as Marie puts it. A trust broken. It's a roundabout way of telling Mariam that she can trust him because on that night that is all she is looking for.
In the case of Mariam, the concept of trust is non-existent. Everyone from hospital staff to doctors to policemen refuse to consider her story. The men who raped her are policemen, the hospital is not only understaffed to treat her in the middle of the night, but is also apprehensive to do so without a registered police complaint. She refuses to use the police vehicle to get to the station for obvious reasons. She pleads with the only woman officer in the station to stay with her, to trust her. In Mariam's case, not only are the people bigoted and indignant, the system too is broken.
Marie (it is eerie how Marie and Mariam are names that share origins), by way of living in a better equipped, inadequately forward, and developed world, has the means to better medical staff, better law enforcement. In her case, trust has a place but is gradually usurped by doubt and uncertainty. She is repeatedly questioned about the same event, its timeline, and the scene at the counselling office is depicted like a social media round table throwing pithy reactions to her plight. Her past haunts not only her but also people around her, which clouds them enough to make questionable judgments that corrode their credibility while claiming to care for her. They turn into zombies in the eyes of Marie.
Fast forward three years and we find two humans — two women — who know how to not only recognise but also kill a zombie. The two detectives, Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen, played by Merrit Wever and Toni Collette, respectively, practice the kind of work ethic that is a symbol of trust and empathy. Karen's first questions to another victim, Amber, are about her — who and what she is, what she does. It's a kind of privilege that is not accorded to Mariam, not even by the woman police officer who takes her statement. Like in Mariam's case, here too, a policeman becomes a suspect, but it is not an asset. The system is such that it is an impediment they are compelled to carefully manoeuvre around.
The exercise puts Marie and Mariam in the same circumstances — unable to trust anyone and left to face their trauma in loneliness. Unbelievable and Beauty and the Dogs only differ in form, and how they treat the genre. The latter is slightly less complex and treats its characters in shades of black and white, but with an undeniable emotional impact thanks to the filmmaking, the organic tension renewed every chapter by the long takes. The former is more precise in its procedural form and makes an important point that even well-meaning people can be damaging with their deeds and words. This works at a macro level too — that no matter how developed or forward looking the country is, there are enough loopholes and lack of awareness or intent to cause lasting damage. The two works of art share more than a potent analogy. Marie and Mariam, worlds apart, ultimately form two sides of the same coin.