Saturday, 21 April 2012

Figurative representation in “The World Unseen”: An analysis


A motion picture is generally not studied in a literature class due to the nature of its type – devoid of any written words. However, it is my personal believe that a motion picture is a very good medium to study representation of images (not just for film schools). Because a film does not have the luxury of the written words, one of the elements which writers/screenwriters/directors manipulate and exploit is figurative representation to give auxiliary meaning, idea or feeling. This figurative representation has a collective effect when used properly, along with good acting, lighting, setting, and all that makes a motion picture.

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The World Unseen is a 2008 historical drama film written and directed by Shamim Sarif, adapted from her own novel of the same title. The film is set in 1950s Cape Town, South Africa during the beginning of apartheid.

The World Unseen is critically acclaimed and has received warm reception, winning numerous awards in various film festivals around the globe. It was released in 2008/2009.

Read synopsis here:


The film The World Unseen is chosen for this study because of its richness in figurative representation. The study is removed from the novel, which the film is based on.

At its core, one of the themes of the film is love. It makes a number of statements about love: love blossoming in very difficult circumstance, love transcending racial barrier, forbidden love, familial love, parental love and the struggles of love.

Interpretation of figurative language and representation is subjective and always based on several factors. The figurative representations discussed here are based on my own interpretation (the list is not exhaustive):

1. Charactonym
2. Metonymy
3. Imagery
4. Symbol
5. Motif
6. Paradox
7. Allegory

1. Charactonym

Charactonym is when the name of the character has a symbolic meaning.

1. Amina
In Arabic, the name means “trustworthy/trustful”, while in African, it means “peaceful, secure’. It is obvious in the film that Amina is trustworthy, when she hides Rehmat from the policemen, knowing very well the kind of trouble she could get herself into if she was discovered (and this is not the first time she gets into trouble, according to Farah). She is also at peace and is happy with who/what she is, as she dresses as she pleases, goes anywhere she wants, and does anything she likes.
2. Miriam
The name has several meanings based on several theories. In Egyptian, it means “beloved”, and we can see that Miriam is loved in the story; at least by her children and Amina. In Hebrew, it means “waters of strength” and “rebellious, disobedient”, which we can also see in the film. Though initially Miriam is portrayed as weak and docile, she evolves into a stronger woman as the story develops, who tries to challenge status quo, stands up to her husband, and pursues what she wants to do, which are learning how to drive and being a cook (by standing up to her husband, she is being disobedient).
3. Grandmother and Amina’s parents (the Harjans)
All these three characters are nameless (no first name, at least) in the film. While Grandmother is nameless perhaps to represent all typical Indian grandmothers, her parents’ namelessness is a bit interesting. Her father is not a typical Indian man – he doesn’t mix with anybody (but somehow is up-to-date with the current gossips), doesn’t pressure Amina into marriage, and doesn’t restrict her movement and freedom. Perhaps his namelessness is to illustrate his individualism, and how he is different from a typical Indian father. Amina’s mother on the other hand, is a rather typical Indian woman – listens to her husband, serves her mother in-law well, and takes care of the household – but is torn between a demanding mother in-law and a rebellious daughter. While the father’s namelessness is to show his individualism, his wife’s namelessness is perhaps to show the complete opposite.
4. Begum, Amina’s maternal grandmother
The Turkish name means “princess” or “a woman of rank”, which is ironic, considering how badly she is treated – how she is raped and gets pregnant, and how she is beaten for carrying this child (thus bringing great shame and dishonour to the family), is sent back to India with the child, and has her son taken away from her.

2. Metonymy

Metonymy occurs when a related object, a part of a related object or an idea is used to represent the whole. Often, it used to represent the whole of an abstract idea.

1. At 00:05:30 – Miriam’s family having breakfast, and at 00:06:00 where Miriam scrubs the floor
They represent a daily life is a housewife – chores which Miriam does on almost daily basis.
2. At 00:05:30 – Miriam’s family having breakfast (she doesn’t eat with them though), at 00:25:00 – she cooks breakfast for Omar, at 00:26:30 – she prepares some food for Amina, at 00:32:46 – she pours some tea for Amina
They show that Miriam, as a devoted mother and with a strong maternal instinct, is always serving people around her. We don’t really see other people doing anything for her, except when she is in labour (Omar brings her bottled drink and Mrs. Benjamin brings her tea). It is a typical role expected of a traditional Indian woman, and she embodies that.
3. The poetry book given by Amina to Miriam
The book is a collection of poems. At 00:38:01, we see Miriam reading the book, and the poem Love bade me welcome (by George Herbert) is read in the background, first by Amina, then by Miriam. The full poem:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

As a whole, the poem refers to God’s love. It is a kindly love which is welcoming, encouraging, observant, hospitable and solicitous. It makes the persona feels accepted and worthy, that he is the “worthy guest”. In the film, we only hear the first eight lines of the poem, the part where Love is welcoming the persona as his guest. The persona feels that he is not worthy to be a guest because he is “guilty of dust and sin”. In the Bible, “dust” also refers to human or flesh. So we can interpret it as the persona saying that he is guilty of all the imperfections that come with being a human, such as desires and lust (and thus, he also sins).

Miriam clearly feels stirrings in her for Amina at this point of the story (Love bade me welcome). But she has reservations about it because above all else (the cultural restrictions and the type of attraction), she feels she is not worthy enough to accept it (yet my soul drew back). However, Love is kind and accepting, and tells her that “yes, you are worthy” (You shall be he).
4. The line “…all the wild summer was in her gaze” written by Miriam on verso of the front cover of the book she sends to Amina
The line is taken from the poem The Folly of Being Comforted by W.B. Yeats. The meaning of the poem is open to interpretation, especially when put in the context of other poems in the collection. On its own, basically it’s a love poem; a dialogue between a kind one and Heart, where the kind one tries to console Heart in his maddening infatuation. However, Heart retorts, and says that her nobility is so great and the fire that stirs about her is so clear. Thus, in the context of the film, by quoting this line, Miriam perhaps is expressing her feelings (or infatuation) for Amina subtly. Full poem:

One that is ever kind said yesterday:
‘Your well-belovéd’s hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;
Time can but make it easier to be wise
Though now it seems impossible, and so
All that you need is patience.’
Heart cries, `No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.
O heart! O heart! If she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.

3. Imagery

Imagery is when the author invokes sensory details. In written works, it helps the reader to visualize what is being described. In a motion picture, I believe it is used to provide overall effect of a scene, usually through facial and bodily expressions, sound effects and background images.

1. At 00:10:03 – Miriam standing by the car, looking around
Visual imagery - to show how desolate and isolated the house/shop is. It could also represent how Miriam is feeling – removed from her husband, children and society.
2. At 00:10:54 – the sounds of the hanging beads by the window
Auditory imagery – it amplifies how quiet it is in the morning in the household and in the countryside.
3. The bright and bold colours of Farah’s clothes
Visual imagery to show her self-confidence and how comfortable she her with herself in bright and bold colours (orange, red), in contrast with Miriam, whose clothes are mostly lacklustre and of natural colours (white, blue, green).
4. When Miriam brings some food for Amina at 00:26:30
Auditory imagery – the sounds of the flapping of the clothes on the line, birds singing, and sounds of wind blowing show how quiet it is out there.
5. Amina finishes her work for the day at 00:28:46
Visual and auditory imagery to highlight how beautiful and quiet the countryside is, with the sunset in the background and crickets chirping.
6. The Indian wedding at the café at 00:40:35
Auditory imagery – to show how loud and merry the ceremony is, where everyone is enjoying themselves, despite their obvious challenges living in South Africa at the time. Feasting and dancing is an important element in an Indian wedding because it signifies approval of family and friends of the marriage.
7. Amina stands in front of Miriam in the shop at 01:10:52
Kinesthetic imagery – the tension Amina brings with her into the shop, which Miriam picks up when she looks at her. The audience could also sense Amina’s anxiety, nervousness and angst when she walks into the shop to confront Miriam.
8. Miriam and Omar’s discussion at 01:22:46
Auditory imagery – the night was very quiet, not even the crickets were chirping. We could also get a sense that is ominous because of that.

Kinesthetic imagery – the tension between Miriam and Omar when he is frustrated that his wife is not backing down from her stand for the first time (to learn how to drive in order to work at the café) and that he is losing control of his wife. He believes that his wife’s place is at home with him. Perhaps gossips about Miriam and Amina he has been hearing doesn’t help either (the same one Mr. Harjan knows about). It is amplified by his overturning the table and trying to hit Miriam.

4. Symbol

A symbol is an object, person, situation, word, idea or action which has a literal meaning in the story and at the same time, represents something other than itself.

1. The two policemen, De Witt and Stewart  
They represent the authority and law – tough, oppressive and make sure that people follow certain order, no matter how discriminative the order is. Perhaps Stewart, the gentler one, is to show that the law is actually well-meaning and not harsh, but he is not less oppressive than De Witt.
2. The sunrise at 00:10:54
Symbolises a new day and new beginning for Miriam (and her family) living in the countryside.
3. The “Location Café”
A place where people of all races are welcome – they can gather, hang out and eat, even the Whites (Madeline). It symbolises freedom and acceptance where everyone is equal.
4. The passing of dark clouds at 00:48:24
This is after Omar hits Miriam the night before. So, the passing of dark clouds could symbolise that his anger has left him and now he regrets hitting his wife. It’s a new day and new beginning after the crisis.

5. Motif

A motif is when a word, phrase, image or idea is repeated throughout a work. It could be used to establish mood, to support the theme, foreshadowing or for other purposes.

1. Tea/drinking of tea 
Tea appears many times throughout the story – tea is always present at the café, there’s always tea around when Grandmother appears, Miriam drinks tea before delivering the baby, Miriam and Amina drink tea together at midnight when both couldn’t sleep, Amina offers her father tea when he comes to visit, and Sadru tells his guests that Farah can make them tea. Tea is an important element in the Indian culture (and also South African). So, its repetition reinforces the cultural theme of the film.
2. Working women
I personally think that the term “working women” is redundant, because a woman is always working: as a mother, she does housework; as a single woman she helps her parents with housework. However, in the Indian culture, women are not supposed to work outside the house, because the mentality is, it connotes too much freedom and independence not suitable for women. The issue of “work” and how it is looked upon with much disdain appears several times, such as when Grandmother first arrives and she is shocked to hear that Amina is at work; at the match-making dinner, when Grandmother tries to downplay Amina’s working by saying that she works but she knows her place is at home; when Amina goes to Miriam’s shop to offer her a job as a cook at her café, but Miriam refused at first because she acknowledges her place is at home with her husband and children; and when Miriam has a talk with her husband about her working, and he gets angry when she still wants to work even when he tells her she can’t.
3. The vastness of the landscape in the countryside
While Amina and her café, her parents, and Sadru’s family are in Cape Town, Omar’s family relocated to the countryside. The audience gets to see several times the vastness of the plain, with rolling mountains in the distance. Perhaps it symbolises loneliness in some characters, such as Miriam and Amina; how it is desolate, isolated and far from the rest of the world.
4. The question of marriage
Being married and raising a family is a big deal in the Indian culture for women at the time. Marriage is sacred to most Indians and is considered to endure beyond death. So, the question of being married pops up very often when Amina is on screen – with her Grandmother trying to arrange her marriage with Young Ali, Miriam asking Amina why she is not married, Miriam asking Amina what she would do when she gets married because she can’t cook, and Miriam telling Amina how her marriage was arranged and that she came to South Africa after she got married.
5. The question of son
Similar to the Chinese culture, a son in a family is important in the Indian culture for many reasons. For example, as a son, he is to be the head of the family when the father passes away; he is also the only one who can light the fire at his parents’ cremation; and he inherits all his parents’ possession when they die, even his wife’s. So, having a son is significant both religiously and non-religiously. The question of son appears several times – during the match-making dinner when Young Ali asks Amina if she wants only boys, and how Grandmother retorts “What rubbish! Everybody wants a boy!” when Amina says “What would make you think I want boys at all?”; how Begum is tricked into letting go of her son at the train station (“prized-possession”); and when Mrs. Benjamin announces the arrival of the new baby, Omar asks if it is a boy.
6. The sunset/sunrise
Perhaps used symbolically to refer to end of an episode of trouble (sunset) and a new beginning/hope (sunrise), both sunset and sunrise are used several times in the film. They could also be used to show progression of time (as metonymy).
7. The children going/returning to school
Miriam’s three children are seldom on screen. The school-going ones are always either going to or returning from school. Thus, the audience gets a sense that while Miriam is devoted to her family, her children are not always there with her, in addition to a husband who doesn’t really talk to her. So, she is really alone in her world.

6. Paradox

A paradox is a contradiction that is somehow true. It can take a form of oxymoron, overstatement or understatement. It can also blend into irony.

1. At 00:14:55, in her attempt to persuade her son to return to India, Grandmother comments that the problem with Africa is that “there are too many black people”.
It’s Africa; of course there are many Africans there. It’s the land of Africans where the Blacks are the natives. However, it is in their homeland that they are oppressed and discriminated against by the minority White community. They are not at welcome in their own home.
2. Grandmother wants Amina to get married to complete her as a woman.
Amina is happy with her life as it is. Perhaps she doesn’t feel complete in the way that Grandmother intends for her, but she doesn’t plan to find a man and get married to fill in the gap.
3. At 00:16:15, Amina tells her mother that she wants to go inside just “like this”; “Mum, this is who I am.”
And Amina appears at the dinner wearing salwar kurta (without the dupatta), a pink one, at that.

7. Allegory

Allegory is something that has a second meaning, usually by endowing characters, objects or events with symbolic significance.

1. Jacob and Madeline’s love story
It shows that although it’s clichéd that love knows no boundary, this love affair does. In the setting of the story, their love is constrained and punishable by the law. It shows us that some things just cannot happen when the circumstance doesn’t allow for it to happen.
2. The road accident at 00:45:17, where a white man hits an African man
This accident signifies two things:

1.  How insignificant and worthless the lives of the Africans are in the eyes of the minority Whites in South Africa at the time.

2.  Miriam’s attempt at helping the African man – she goes out alone in the dark looking for him and when she finds him, tries to give him a blanket – shows that she is making small steps to change and not be accepting of how things already are at that time; that you mind your own business, that your place is at home, that you obey your husband no matter what, and that Africans are not worth anything.


Figurative representation is a very good way to give auxiliary meaning, idea or feeling in a motion picture. I personally think that the film The World Unseen has achieved that tremendously well.

** Please purchase original The World Unseen DVD from Enlightenment Production here. Support independent filmmakers by buying directly from them.

Shamim Sarif. (2008). Director’s commentary: The World UnseenDVD. EnlightenmentProduction: London.

Wikipedia. (2011). Stylistic Devices: Figurative Language. Retrieved from in October 2011.

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