“The Hill Where Lionesses Roar” and “Quickening,” Debut Features by Emerging Filmmakers, Are Intimate Exposés into the Lives of Young Women

With heart and bravery, and offering unique windows into typically unexplored lives, Lionesses and Quickening both interrogate how young women on the cusp of adulthood navigate their ever more-complicated worlds.

the-hill-where-lionesses-roar-review-quickening-debut-features-young-women-director-feminist-films
From The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar. (Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

This is one in a series of reviews from the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), during which I focused on films directed by women; you can find my other TIFF 2021 reviews here.


One of the tremendous boons of film festivals like TIFF is that they provide a platform for young and emerging filmmakers to bring their work to a wider audience as they embark on promising careers. The films reviewed below, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar and Quickening, are remarkable debut features of such emerging talent. Kosovo-French writer-director Luàna Bajrami, also notable for her supporting role in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was only 18 when she began working on Lionesses.  The Pakistan-born Haya Waseem has already written and directed a number of well-received shorts, but Quickening is her first feature.

With heart and bravery, and offering unique windows into typically unexplored lives, Lionesses and Quickening both interrogate how young women on the cusp of adulthood navigate their ever more-complicated worlds.

The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar

the-hill-where-lionesses-roar-review-quickening-debut-features-young-women-director-feminist-films
From The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar. (Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar is an unflinching slice-of-life view into the friendship of three young women who share a fervent desire to escape the confines of small-town life in Kosovo, go to university, and explore beyond the streets and people they’ve known since birth.  Existing in a state of protracted ennui seemingly only punctuated by disappointments large and small, the friends conspire to form a gang, robbing nearby businesses in hopes of putting enough money aside to break free from lives that already seem written in stone.

Qe (Flaka Latifi) lives with her parents and a younger sister who idolizes her. Her father is overbearing and verbally abusive, and her mother remains insistent that Qe should take over the family hair salon even though she’d prefer to go to college. Jeta, by far the most disaffected of the three and for good reason, is an orphan and lives with a sexually abusive uncle; as a result, she tries to spend as little time as possible at home. By contrast, the third friend, Li (Era Balaj) comes across as jubilant and carefree, with a loving mother and three brothers, but her romance with Zem (Andi Bajgora)—a kind young man who has the misfortune of working for some unsavory characters—causes strain and trouble for the trio.

Another disruption appears in the form of Lena (played by the writer-director), a Kosovo ex-pat who has been raised in Paris and only visits to spend time with her grandmother. Initially, Lena and Qe form a tenuous friendship, marred in part by Jeta’s possessive jealousy. But it’s Lena’s presumptive attitude that ultimately drives a wedge between her and the other women. Qe, Li and Jeta grill Lena about life in Paris and attending university, but when Lena laments that it’s all too much pressure and responsibility, the other women balk. How can she not see how lucky she is?

Lena romanticizes the friends’ lives as idyllic and “simple”: living in the countryside, nothing required of them but spending their days lazing about in the sun. In many ways, she exoticizes them, an impulse Qe, especially, pushes back against vehemently. One of the most salient moments in the film is a conversation over freedom. Lena thinks the trio are “free” because no one expects anything from them; the friends feel they have spent their whole lives waiting for a chance at escape, for their lives to mean something.

While the central conflict of the film purports to be Qe, Li and Jeta’s decision to partake in a life of crime in order to finally get out of town, the heist aspect of Lionesses feels almost beside the point. The ending is abrupt and strange, perhaps not doing the film justice, but what stuck with me was the first two-thirds of the film and its intimate portrait of young adults whose fates may already be sealed.

What do we see in the lives of these women? Do we sympathize or understand them? Or are we, like Lena, merely interlopers romanticizing their deserted fantasies and curtailed hopes?


Quickening

the-hill-where-lionesses-roar-review-quickening-debut-features-young-women-director-feminist-films
From Quickening. (Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

Taking a different approach, Quickening employs innovative camerawork, atmospheric lighting, and a not-entirely-linear narrative to shine light on the coming of age of a Pakistani Canadian college student. Also a rumination on the meanings of freedom and family, Quickening is not always straightforward or lucid in its narrative explanations or its character’s motivations, but it betrays a tender care and attention to its subjects that’s refreshing and illuminating.

Protagonist Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is an interpretative dance student, still trying to get a handle on her craft while managing the delicate shift from childhood to adulthood that all college students must.  Still living at home, Sheila contends with a mother who is lovingly overbearing, not wanting her daughter to participate in out-of-town trips and college parties, and a father who’s more understanding but whose financial secrets threaten to break the family apart (Sheila’s parents are played by Azeem’s real-life parents, Ashir Azeem and Bushra Ashir Azeem).

A new boyfriend, her burgeoning sexuality, and conflicts in her own family cause Sheila to feel increasingly unmoored. She struggles to connect with not only her older female relatives, but also the cousins who are her own age and try to include her in their conversations despite Sheila’s resistance and, perhaps misguided, feelings of exclusion.

Just as Sheila’s feelings of being an outsider come to a crescendo, she discovers that she’s pregnant; from there, Quickening explores the spiral of Sheila’s thoughts and feelings about her family, her relationships, and her own body as she comes to terms with who she is.

In Quickening, a second-generation immigrant and woman of color navigates spaces wherein everyone “just wants [her] to be happy” even while no one, even her, seems to understand what that means. And, like her dance classes, where Sheila’s instructor encourages her to think about how bodies can capture and convey emotion, the film itself delivers on its promise to bring us a profound impression of one young woman’s life.

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.