Thursday, 12 April 2012

Figurative representation in “The World Unseen”: An analysis of Symbol, Motif, Paradox and Allegory

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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. Symbol
2. Motif
3. Paradox
4. Allegory

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Shamim Sarif. (2008). Director’s commentary: The World Unseen DVD. Enlightenment Productions: London.

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

Buy the DVD "The World Unseen":

Buy the NOVEL "The World Unseen":

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