As a woman whose bodily functions have always been controlled by men, writer-director of ELAHA, Milena Aboyan, was not surprised when she stumbled upon VirginiaCare, a product that allows women to imitate their hymen breaking during sex. The product is a capsule that is inserted into the vagina and is supposed to dissolve and show a small drop of blood post-intercourse. It is the product used by the desperate Elaha (Bayan Layla) in ELAHA, Aboyan’s directorial debut, which pulls no punches in indicting antiquated practices and traditions around policing women’s sexuality.

Kurdish woman Elaha is due to get married to Nasim (Armin Wahedi Yeganeh). It’s not quite an arranged marriage, but it feels formed by social and religious pressure. “Why marry him?” asks Stella (Hadnet Tesfai), Elaha’s work coach. This question flickers throughout ELAHA as the protagonist’s friends and family suffocate her with societal expectations of both Kurdish and German traditions. As a resident within German society, she is to pursue work that is higher paid than the part-time dry cleaners she works at. Contrary to what is expected from her as a German, she will be expected to drop the job when she marries Nasim and become a housewife as inferred by Kurdish traditions. The young Elaha doesn’t quite know what she wants to do with herself, but she knows that she wants liberation from this facsimile of life, where she finds her movements constricted at every turn. Her home has no locks, so returning family scupper her masturbation attempts and prevent her from urinating undisturbed. Even the freedom of liberating her breasts from her bra (itself a cage designed by modest society) while in the comfort of her own home provokes a sneer from her mother. Her prospective husband says he wants to give her freedom, but there is no freedom in the marital restraints he imposes in the name of traditional practices. One such restraint is that, even though he has had sex with multiple partners before his engagement to Elaha, she is to be a virgin.

But Elaha has already had sex, and in the Kurdish culture presented by Aboyan, this is defamatory enough that Elaha’s mother (Derya Durmaz) would prefer death to embarrassment by her “slut” daughter. Worried about disappointing her family and the society that traps her in tradition, she begins researching surgery to reconstruct her hymen, a thin mucosal tissue around the vaginal opening. When broken during intercourse, the small amount of blood left is said to represent virginity. After surgery to reinstate her hymen proves too expensive – her attempts to raise the money for it find yet another societal stumbling block, supposedly embarrassing her mother by requesting more hours at work – she turns desperately to VirginiaCare.

There is little nuance to ELAHA. Aboyan is justly angry at the patriarchal systems that exist to prevent women’s sexual freedom, and it comes across in her script. Each character is a sounding board to reinforce how confined Elaha is. Her friends know she is no longer a virgin and are like angels on her shoulder, telling her about the flaws in patriarchal systems. Her husband and mother are slightly devilish and disdainful at nearly every opportunity. Even Elaha’s future mother-in-law wants to inspect Elaha’s vagina to ensure she hasn’t been “ruined”. There is nothing to feel in ELAHA other than the escalating despair that Elaha feels.

ELAHA makes use of a 4:3 aspect ratio, visually signifying the constriction Elaha herself feels. The film risks feeling rote in this regard (as this aspect ratio has slowly become common in stories that revolve around the constriction of the characters), but Aboyan’s direction finds strength and poignancy regardless. Aboyan finds this less in the grand moments that tear down Elaha but rather in the slight inflections that show Elaha’s hidden sadness, such as her tears landing on her mother’s thigh. Layla’s performance as Elaha is an accomplished one, as she finds space in her role to showcase a vibrant personality while remaining someone who is still terrified and stuck between conformity and personal freedom. Her breaking of the fourth wall as she embraces minor freedom and strips naked is asking not just if we are happy with this as a society but also requests that we look introspectively as to why it is allowed. This direct address to the audience is a creative decision that gives the film such a raw edge. It allows us to look past her personal characteristics, inviting audiences into the argument around female autonomy as a concept rather than just being about Elaha herself.

As the anger in the story abates, it combines with Elaha’s sadness to become a story that is as upsetting as it is infuriating. Aboyan’s film is incensed by the impeding of female sexuality by patriarchal systems, whether they be Kurdish, German, or others. When the film channels that anger into something pensive, ELAHA’s power is amplified, evolving from didactic frustration to something evocative and immensely powerful.