15 December 2000
By Sally Weale
Interview With Director Samira Makhmalbaf
Samira Makhmalbaf is 20 years old. She has a girlish laugh and likes skating, swimming and cycling. She is also the youngest director ever to win the jury prize at Cannes. Sally Weale talks to the extraordinary Iranian film-maker about art, politics and censorship - and the sense of injustice that drives her
When Samira Makhmalbaf was a little girl growing up in Tehran, she lived in a house filled with talk of cinema. She remembers earwigging as her mother and father, the celebrated Iranian film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, discussed movies from dawn till dusk; she went with him on location, she watched him editing, she starred in his films. The world of film and film-making filled her every waking hour and excited every sense. Little wonder, then, that the daughter of this father is now making her own films. And to great international acclaim.
Makhmalbaf is as striking as her films. Tiny and dark, she is intense, urgent, ferocious. Her kohl-rimmed eyes are penetrating, her small hands agile and expressive. She wants you to understand her work; she harangues and charms you, her husky little voice - like a teenage boy's - getting higher and higher as she battles with her English.
Makhmalbaf is in London to promote her new film, Blackboards (Takhte Siah), which is by general agreement an extraordinary achievement by an extraordinary young film director. It is only her second, but it has already confirmed her as a mini film genius of staggering maturity. She's still only 20, a young woman with a girlish laugh who likes skating, swimming and cycling.
She has again teamed up with her father, who co-scripted and edited Blackboards, as he did with her first film, The Apple. There have inevitably been dark whispers about how far they are her own work and how much her father's. Makhmalbaf doesn't care. She is wonderfully defiant: "I want him to edit my films so why should I have to, because he is my father, say, 'No, please don't edit it'?" She does not know if she will work with him again. "Being young, yeah, you want to be independent. But at the same time, I'm not that much young. At the moment I'm so old. Even older than what he is. He is 40 and something, and I am 90 years old."
Blackboards is the sort of film that takes your breath away and leaves its images burned indelibly on your mind. The story opens with a group of teachers roving the mountains between Iraq and Iran, in a landscape of breathtaking beauty and danger, their blackboards on their backs, in search of students. The original idea, Makhmalbaf says, was her father's, conceived while they were travelling together in Kurdistan. The development was all her own.
The film follows two of the teachers who break away from the group - one, Reeboir, comes across a trail of boys, who like him are carrying their livelihoods on their shoulders. These children are "mules", smuggling contraband over the border. He offers to teach them in return for bread. The second teacher, Said, joins up with a group of Kurdish refugees made up of old men, one woman and a young child, who are making their way back to their homeland of Iraq to die. They refuse his offer to teach them, but they pay him in walnuts to guide them to the border.
Some of the scenes, so tender and strange, are unforgettable: two old men trying to encourage their friend to urinate - he hasn't passed water for two days and is in agony; a mother trying to get her little boy to do the same, gently splashing him with water as she croons encouragement; an old man with his face covered, tossing hay seemingly aimlessly into the air, who has a letter he cannot read. It is from his son, a prisoner of war in Iraq.
Makhmalbaf spent four months shooting the film in the Kurdish mountains near Halabcheh, a city on the Iraqi border where the Iraqis gassed the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war. She dodged landmines daily and used a cast of 200 local villagers, with just two professional actors taking leading roles. "It was one of the best experiences I had, living with those people," she says. "Because I loved them. They were humans, good humans, suffering from different things. It was a deeper kind of life compared to most of the other places I've lived."
The film works through allegory, metaphor and the surreal, rather than documentary - and explores what happens to people caught up in conflicts. Violence is never far away: the film echoes with the sound of gunfire and helicopters. At one point, near the border, the Kurdish refugees throw themselves to the ground believing themselves to be under chemical attack. The camera, held at shoulder level, meanders among these stoical people trekking through the mountains, giving the viewer a refugee's-eye view of this beautiful but frightening world.
On a chilly day in London, Makhmalbaf is wrapped up in black, heavy cotton, like a precious object. When she has met other interviewers she has worn jeans; today she is wearing more traditional dress, which would not look out of place on the streets of Tehran. Maybe it's because she's about to catch a plane home. I think she's had enough of media interviews, being quizzed about politics and Islam. Lots of western journalists expect her to be much more angry and openly critical of the political situation in Iran.
She says she's more interested in deeper, greater, universal truths, rather than the specifics of a particular political system. Which is clearly true - she is an artist rather than a political activist - but there must be an element of self-preservation in her reticence. Iran is her home, she loves it, and she has to live and work there, in the shadow of the censors, who - remarkably - have left her films untouched.
And of course there are her father's experiences to take into account. As a young man, Mohsen Makhmalbaf was an Islamic revolutionary opposed to the Shah's regime. When he was 17, he was arrested after he stabbed a policeman with a knife. He was saved from the firing squad because of his youth; his prison sentence was cut short when he was freed as a result of the 1979 revolution, and on his release he became a propagandist film-maker for Ayatollah Khomeini. Later, he started to read the philosophers and moved away from dogma to a poetic cinematic vision. (Her mother apparently burned to death in a house fire and her father subsequently married his late wife's sister.)
Earlier this year Makhmalbaf cast aside her usual reticence to make a rare political statement in public, dedicating a prize she picked up at Cannes for Blackboards to the "heroic efforts" of the pro-democracy moment in Iran. I ask her how the movement is progressing - there have been serious setbacks since the landslide victory of the reforming President Mohammad Khatami three years ago with liberal newspapers shut down and hundreds of reformers jailed - but she is reluctant to elaborate. "It is starting. Something has started. It is better than not to have started. It might have some ups and downs, but I'm optimistic."
She pauses, then turns her laser-like attention on her interpreter for an intense little discussion before turning it back on me. "I imagine no politicians from Iran come here. No? They never have any interviews with you, so when we come here, you think we are politicians. No, I'm not a politician. If I was born somewhere else, I wouldn't be talking this much about politics. I could use the language of art.
"Even if I made that kind of direct movie talking about politics, it's nothing. Nothing, because it's just talking like a journalist. You are saying something superficial. The movies I make are deeper. This kind of work can live more, longer, deeper, compared to that kind of journalistic work." There is no hint of arrogance in what she says. She is one of those people fired by a natural, instinctive self-belief, the sort of self-belief that enabled her to walk out of school at the age of 15 because she felt her teachers were not teaching her anything new. She asked her father to tell her about film-making and, three years later, she made The Apple - becoming the youngest director in the world to compete in the official section of the 1998 Cannes film festival.
The Apple is another film that leaves you shellshocked. It is the true story of a man, married to a blind woman, who keeps his twin 12-year-old daughters locked up behind bars at home. The characters all "play" themselves, and the film records the girls' first steps into the world beyond the bars of their home and their magical awakening to the wonders of ordinary life. The Apple tells us about life for women in Iran today but its power is in its humanity, rather than in exposure - the father is not vilified for what he has done, the film struggles instead to explain his actions. He is simply doing his best, however misguided, to protect his daughters according to the teachings of the Koran.
Makhmalbaf kept in touch with the daughters. After their mother died, their father was persuaded to let another family look after them because he could not accept their freedom. They receive a monthly allowance from the profits of the film and are now studying at school.
I ask about life for women in Iran. "We have a lot of limitations," she says. "From all the written and unwritten law. But, still, I hope and I believe that it will get better. It has started with the democracy movement. But some things don't happen consciously. I wanted to make films, I made films to say something else, but in a way I became a kind of example. It was breaking some kind of cliche. Another new way of thinking started. Yes, we have a lot of limitations, but these limitations made a lot of strong, different kinds of women in Iran who, if they find a chance to express themselves, I'm sure have plenty of things to say. They may have found a deeper way through all these limitations."
But what makes her most angry about the restrictions imposed on women? "This kind of narrow-mindedness which is in the schools or in the mind of the people. They think you are not a first class human being, you are second class. And you might have a kind of limitation in your mind because you are a woman. This is the worst." She really crackles when she says this. I think it makes her very angry.
It's time to go the airport. She's going home to Tehran, to see friends and family - perhaps she'll go skating, or swimming or cycling. And, yes, she has got an idea for her next film. Nothing much yet, just an image. In her head. Quietly growing, slowly taking shape. She's not saying any more. "You have to keep it a secret in your heart, in your mind," she says, "and not talk about it at all with anybody - so that it comes to a kind of maturity. Then it's the time."
Take your time, Samira. If the first two are anything to go by, the third will be well worth the wait.
Blackboards is released on December 29.
Source: The Guardian , 15 December 2000