10 December 2000
By: Sheila Whitaker
"Dad kick-started Iran's film revolution. Now his daughter and wife are winning prizes worldwide. Sheila Whitaker reports on the magnificent Makhmalbafs"
Our story begins in the Shah's Iran: a 17-year-old militant, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, sets up a guerilla movement, arms himself with a knife and stabs a policeman as he tries to steal his gun. His plan was to rob a bank for revolutionary funds. But the policeman shoots him in the stomach and the teenager is jailed for seven years.
Freed after the 1979 revolution, our former revolutionary is made head of the Propaganda Bureau of Islamic Arts and Thought. He writes radio plays and books and makes short documentaries. He then moves on to feature films and soon wins international recognition with movies such as 1989's Dasstforoosh (The Peddler). By this time he has made 15 features and written 28 books. All this from a man who left school at 11 to help support his family and didn't see his first film until after the revolution.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf is now a superstar in Iran and a legend in world cinema. He was awarded the medal of L'Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government last year, yet little is known of him in Britain. This is about to change, with the opening in the UK on 29 December of his daughter Samira's movie, Blackboards, which won the Jury prize at this year's Cannes festival. Still only 18, Samira was a judge at the Venice Film Festival last summer and earlier this year received the François Truffaut Award and the Unesco Federico Fellini medal.
It is just four years since Samira, who appeared in her father's film The Cyclist when she was eight, decided to leave school before her diploma year to study cinema. But where? There were no film schools in Iran. Her father drafted a proposal to the Ministry of Culture asking for funds and permission to set up the country's first film school with places for 100 students. But Makhmalbaf was already a thorn in the side of the Ministry. They told him 'that one dangerous filmmaker like me was enough for one country and that 100 others like me were not needed'.
So he set up The Makhmalbaf Film School at home. His first students were his children, his wife Marzieh Meshkini and four friends. The youngest was Hana, then eight, whose short video The Day the Aunt was Ill was screened just a year later at the 1997 Locarno Film Festival. The oldest was Ebrahim Ghafori, in his twenties, who went on to photograph Samira's first film, The Apple, and Blackboards.
Makhmalbaf remortgaged his home to finance the school and the making of his 1996 film, A Moment of Innocence, in which he appears with the policeman he stabbed in his youth, who turned up one day asking to be in one of his films. Banned by the Ministry of Culture because Makhmalbaf refused to make the cuts they demanded, it remains his favourite film.
Because he was not allowed to distribute A Moment of Innocence Makhmalbaf lost the family home. Nonetheless, he dedicated himself to teaching for the next four years. Two years after the school was set up, Samira, the catalyst, made her first feature, The Apple, in which she re-enacts the lives of two young girls whose father kept them locked up for 11 years with their blind mother.
Inevitably, since her father wrote, produced and edited the film, some suggested that it was more her father's film than hers. But it was clear to those who knew Samira that, young as she was, she was too strong-minded to play second fiddle. She said at Cannes that she expected people to suggest that her father was the real auteur of The Apple, and that made her happy 'because that meant it was a good film'. But the suggestions became tiresome. 'Of course there is his presence,' she snapped one day at a press conference. He was editor, screenwriter and father. That's quite an influence.'
Her new film Blackboards, set in Iranian Kurdistan, is also edited by Makhmalbaf but this time she co-wrote with him and any lingering doubts about the extent of her father's involvement are firmly banished on viewing her brother Maysam's documentary, How Samira Made Blackboards, which was shown at Venice this year.
Shot with a handheld camera and a few professional actors among local amateurs, Blackboards centres on two itinerant teachers carrying blackboards in the mountains near the Iraq border seeking pupils. One meets a group of boys who smuggle contraband (much of it almost too heavy for them to carry), the other a group of Iraqi refugees trying to cross the border, most of them before they die of old age, all constantly in danger of air and ground attack from border guards. Samira lived with the Kurds while location-seeking and evolving her screenplay and filmed for three months ('without even calling home') in the hostile natural terrain which also hides postwar land mines. One scene of Maysam's documentary shows her unsuccessful attempts to persuade a professional actor to tone down his performance. In response to his comment that she should 'never tell an actor what to do', she replaces him with a non-professional. Her hard physical training at her father's film school also came to the fore when she plunged into an icy river in order to persuade her actors to do likewise.
For Samira, cinema 'borders between dream and reality'. She describes her film as appearing 'realistic because of the extreme simplicity of the dialogue which resembles real-life words that the characters would speak'.
Marzieh Meshkini is Samira's aunt - and her stepmother. Marzieh's sister, who died tragically young in an accident, was Makhmalbaf's first wife. A 30-year-old geology and biology graduate, Marzieh was an assistant director on Makhmalbaf's The Silence, and on Samira's The Apple and Blackboards. The Day I Became a Woman, her own first film, screened this year in Venice and winner of the Jury Prize in Thessaloniki, is as remarkable and fascinating as either of her step-daughter's. Due to open in the UK next year, it comprises three stories about women at the beginning, middle and the end of their lives.
The extraordinary Makhmalbaf Film House is now a formidable force in Iran - and not only in film. Samira, while largely conforming to dress codes, wears a black scarf wound around her head and tucked subversively behind her ears in place of a hijab. She accepted the Cannes award 'on behalf of the new, young generation who struggle for democracy and a better life in Iran' and donated her $5,000 Truffaut award to the building of a school for 40 pupils in the village of Dehbar in Kurdestan.
The family production house has clearly established its space and influence in Iranian and international cinema with films that are personal, highly original and uniquely Iranian. 'Hollywood has occupied cinemas all over the world. Because we're not occupied we can develop our own cinema,' says Meshkini.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose ironically surrealist short film The Test of Democracy made its debut at Venice 2000, is shooting in remote Iranian Baluchestan Sun behind the Moon, which deals with Afghan refugees in Iran. Samira and Meshkini are deciding what to do next and we have yet to discover what the future holds for Maysam and Hana.
Blackboards opens in the UK on 29 December. The Day I Became A Woman will be screened here next year.
Link to the source: The Guardian, 10 December 2000