From the Ashes is a new Saudi Arabian drama film released on Netflix that intends to present a comparatively simple tale through a twisted narrative. At the center of the film’s plot is Secondary School No. 2300 for Girls, where a deadly fire breaks out one day, leading to grave consequences for some students and teachers. While the story in From the Ashes is perhaps adequate, the making is quite unsatisfactorily ineffective and tepid. The twists that it brings along are also rather predictable, making From the Ashes a mostly mediocre watch.
Plot Summary: What is The Film about?
Set in a Saudi Arabian city, From the Ashes first establishes the characters and the space that we are about to see for the rest of the film. As the main characters prepare themselves in the morning to come down to the government girls’ school that is at the center of this story, the film seemingly makes a note of the living conditions of women in the country. One of the students, Amira, has to face remarks passed by some boys on her way to school, both before and even after she has covered her hair. A radio program speaks about different religious leaders claiming different rules about how much of a woman’s body must be covered in public, while another student, Mona, is coerced by her father to even hide her bare hands behind black gloves. As scenes of school lessons are shown, one of the tomboyish students, Heba, questions whether men should also be asked by religion to cover themselves in public, only to be silenced by the teacher, Afaf. Amidst all of this, another radio program also mentions Saudi Arabia’s developing emergence in global organizations, marking the country’s international acceptance.
While such an opening makes From the Ashes quite an interesting prospect, such commentaries exist only in passing and do not find any more space in the film. Instead, the plot branches out to the main drama, which is the operations at the girls’ school, and then a shocking incident that takes place one day. The girl earlier seen, Amira, is an exceptionally brilliant student, always winning accolades and praise from her teachers both because of her performances and her obedient nature. Amira is best friends with Rana, who is a very talented student as well, and is also the daughter of the school’s principal, Hayat. But Amira is also regularly bullied by some other classmates, namely Heba, Mona, and Mashael, who are not really the best students. The teachers are also unable to react to this bullying, while the principal is not very interested in meddling in the matter. However, the entire matter goes through an unfortunate turn of events when a horrific fire breaks out at the school, leading to even more trouble for some.
Can the students survive the terrible fire?
The incident of the fire at the school is the most important event that takes place in the film, and at the very beginning, From the Ashes also reminds us through text that it is based on some real events that took place in Saudi Arabia. It can be guessed that this fire at a girl’s school was a real incident, which marks the base of the film, even though the drama elements are admittedly added as a layer of fiction. On the day of the fire, Principal Hayat was not present at school as she had to go to a court hearing regarding her ongoing divorce. The woman has been separated from her husband, the father of Rana, for quite some time, and while the divorce case has been going on, the man has not been paying child support expenses, even wanting to take the girl’s custody. Thus, when Hayat is away from the school, the vice principal, Seham, is in charge of the place, and she is the one who reports to the authorities when the fire breaks out. Being a girls’ school, where all the teachers and staff are women, it is not easy for Seham or the others to react to the fire, as the country’s laws prevent women from taking direct charge in any matter.
Seham informs the authorities of the fire and has to wait for the firefighters to arrive, unable to lead her students out of the school premises either since the main gate is locked from the outside. Once again, because the place has so many women inside and any man entering would cause unwanted chaos, the male guards of the place are given the responsibility of ensuring that nobody enters or leaves without proper permission. These men are also the ones ensuring that the students are all covered up outside of the school premises, according to their religious customs, and they are the ones upholding the codes of morality in this manner. Since they are given the responsibility of guarding the gates, the men lock up the place and walk away during their lunch hours, keeping the keys to themselves. Naturally, when Seham tries to contact the guards outside or exit the school premises through the main gate, they are unable to do so as the men are away on their lunch break. In an even more shocking and crude occurrence, one of the guards later refuses to let firefighters enter the school because they are all men, and no prior permission has been given to allow them inside the safe space meant for women.
Meanwhile, on the inside, the teachers try their best to guide the students safely towards the main gate so that they can exit as soon as help arrives from outside. Most of the students and staff members manage to get out in this manner, while some are also injured in the process. One of the school staff, Marzouka, is seriously injured as a side of her face is burned, and therefore, the woman has to be rushed to the hospital. On the other hand, the teachers tried their best to keep the students safe amidst explosions caused by the fire, with parts of the interiors also dangerously starting to fall. Principal Hayat receives news of the fire from Seham and immediately rushes to the place, not just as the head of the institution but also as Rana’s panicking mother. Ultimately, when the chaos is over, and most of the women have managed to escape the school premises, the fire is found to have claimed two lives.
Afaf, the teacher seen in many instances, had been trying to lead a group of students toward the roof in order to get away from the toxic smoke and the deadly fire. This group had been far from the main gates when the fire broke out, and so they did not get the opportunity to move towards the exit. Even though Afaf managed to help the students get out onto the open roof, she had consumed too much of the smoke, and the woman unfortunately died as a result of it immediately. The loss of Afaf’s life is even more saddening because she was also carrying another life within her body, as she had revealed to her colleagues only a day earlier that she was pregnant. This pregnancy was also seemingly the result of many long efforts by the couple, making the fate of the woman even more unfortunate. On the previous day, Afaf had asked for a leave because of her pregnancy, but Hayat had denied it, saying that she would be granted leave close to her due date. It is easy to wonder whether Hayat’s decision to grant the leave could have saved Afaf’s life.
The other casualty is the brightest student at the school, Amira, who had been inside the storeroom when the fire broke out. On the morning of the incident, the girl entered the storeroom alone to take a book of mathematics for herself after she had lost her original copy and had gotten stuck inside the place. In fact, someone had locked the girl inside the storeroom, and although Amira had realized this, she could not do anything about it. She tried her best to alert the others of her situation, shrieking out for help, but nobody could hear her since the storeroom was in one corner of the school compound, and the girl, unfortunately, lost her life because of the smoke.
What happens to Heba and her friends?
Naturally, an investigation into the death of Amira is started by the authorities since someone locked the girl inside, and the perpetrator must be punished for such an act. As the school resumes classes in the evening, Principal Hayat begins an internal investigation into the matter, and the primary suspects are the three bullies. The tomboyish Heba and her two best friends, Mona and Mashael, are individually called to the principal’s office and questioned about the events of the day. While classes had been going on when the fire started, Heba had excused herself for a washroom visit, and this made it possible for her to have caused the incident. All three girls are known miscreants, who are also not good in studies and have disciplinary troubles as well, and so they are considered the main perpetrators.
Multiple incidents from the past are brought up as part of Hayat’s investigation, starting with the time when Mona locked Amira inside their computer laboratory. This was because Amira had refused to give her homework to the girls to copy, and a teacher had caught them holding Amira hostage. In another instance, Mashael was called out as a cheater by Amira during an examination, and this is also seen as a possible motive for the girls to lock Amira in the storeroom. An even more shocking incident from the past is revealed, in which Mona and Mashael had gone to meet with the latter’s boyfriend, and someone had complained about this to the authorities. The girls were sure that Amira had done this, and it led to great trouble for both of them, making them vengeful against their classmates.
However, Hayat is able to wedge a division between the three girls, who are otherwise very united. She informs Heba that her own friends had ratted out on her in some instances, and this truly leads to chaos among the three. They hold each other responsible for incidents, and Mashael reports that Heba had actually not been in the washroom on the fateful day, suggesting that she had started the fire. This is enough proof against the student, and Heba is held responsible for the fire, and she is put into juvenile prison.
Who was actually responsible for the fire at the school?
It is only at the very end of From the Ashes that the real truth regarding the cause of the fire is revealed. While classes were going on at the time, Mona and Mashael had been secretly smoking a cigarette by the side of the storeroom, and Vice Principal Seham had caught them in the act. As the girls pleaded with the teacher to not report the matter to their parents, they were sent back to class. But some of the teachers had the habit of doing the very things that they ordered the children not to, and Seham started smoking the same cigarette that she just confiscated from the two students. There is definitely a suggestion that women not having enough liberating space in the outside world led to the consequences of the fire, but the film does not convey the message very well. It was at this very time that Amira realized someone had locked her inside the storeroom, and in her hurried efforts, the girl fell to the floor, causing a lot of noise. This noise startled Seham, making her feel that someone was coming her way, and the teacher hurriedly threw the cigarette to the side and left the place. This started the devastating fire, as the cigarette landed on some hay, but nobody ultimately found out about this truth.
Who had locked Amira inside the storeroom?
Although Heba is held responsible for locking up Amira inside the storeroom, the real perpetrator is revealed to have been someone else. On that fateful day, the students had been asked to submit a speech, the best of which would be selected for an event. Although Rana was very good friends with Amira, the constant pressure that her mother, Principal Hayat, put on her to be the best student in the school got to the girl’s head. Rana devised a plan to ensure that her speech would be selected over Amira’s, and as the latter went into the storeroom to get hold of the book, the girl locked her best friend inside the storeroom. Although Rana did not intentionally take Amira’s life, her actions led to the tragedy, and so the girl started to feel terribly guilty.
When Rana opens up to her mother about this, Hayat reveals that she had already known that her daughter had locked Amira up. During her visit to the hospital, the principal was informed by Marzouka that Rana had asked for help for Amira, who she mentioned was in the storehouse. Since nobody else knew about the girl being in the storeroom, Hayat joined the dots and figured out that Rana had done the deed. But the woman carefully diverted the case towards Heba’s bullying acts against Amira, and had threatened to expel Mashael, who is Marzouka’s daughter, if the latter told anyone about this.
During From the Ashes‘ ending, Rana herself changes this situation, and with the help of her father, she tells the police authorities everything that had transpired. Heba is finally let go, while Rana is put in juvenile prison. The ending also shows Hayat losing her job, as Vice Principal Seham takes her position without anyone knowing that it was the latter who had unknowingly started the fire in the first place.