Hana Makhmalbaf's first feature premiered at the Venice film festival - shame she was too young to be allowed in. She talks to Fiachra Gibbons
Monday October 27, 2003
It takes a special type of bravery to stand in front of Iranian film director Samira Makhmalbaf and say: "No." The Taliban knew when to leave well alone when she shot Blackboards in the bandit-infested borderlands of western Afghanistan. So you have to pity the poor fundamentalist mullah - three words you will rarely see in the same sentence - whom she tongue-lashed to within an inch of his life while shooting At Five in the Afternoon, which won the jury prize at Cannes this year.
The old boy had been pressganged into her film, shot against the strangely surreal ruins and rubble of Kabul, a city that looks like a group of angry giants have stamped all over it. But having pondered on the fate of his soul - and reflected on the Taliban''''s ban on "satanic" Bollywood music and movies - the mullah was having second thoughts. Samira, 23 years old and terrifyingly imperious in her Tehran make-up and fashionably tight chador, fell on him like a hawk on a hamster. "What kind of holy man are you not to honour your word?" she demanded.
We know all this because it is one of the most telling scenes in Joy of Madness, a fiendishly clever and affecting film made by Hana Makhmalbaf, Samira''''s little sister. Just for the record, Hana was 14-and-a-half when she wrapped Joy of Madness. Young even for a Makhmalbaf - the remarkable family of film-makers spawned by the former dissident, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the director of Gabbeh and Kandahar. So young, in fact, that Italian law forbade her from going to her premiere at the Venice film festival last month. Having attended her first Cannes aged three, and had her short film, The Day My Aunt Was Ill, screened at Locarno when she was eight, Hana saw the ban off.
Ostensibly, Joy of Madness is a straightforward "making-of" documentary about the casting of Samira''''s feature - the first to be shot after the fall of the Taliban - about a girl who dreams of being Afghanistan''''s first female president. In reality, it is a film about the crippling effects of fear on a country that has much to be afraid of - a fear you can almost taste in the dusty air. It is written, along with shame, suspicion and pride, into every face filmed by Makhmalbaf. It was a fear she experienced for herself. "I was grabbed by a man in Kabul who tried to kidnap me. My aunt saved me. She screamed and hit him and shouted for help and he ran away. For a while I didn''''t dare leave the house," she says.
While her older sister struggled to keep her cast of twitchy amateurs, plucked from the streets, on camera, Hana moved unnoticed among them, recording the worst of what poverty, ignorance and intolerance can do to a people. Nor did she flinch from showing Samira''''s strongarm tactics, even when her sister ordered her - rather scarily - to stop shooting.
The sweet, rather delicate teenager sitting next to me in a terrace cafe at the Venice film festival, tugging her barely-there white veil about her face, doesn''''t look strong enough to resist such a force of nature. So is Samira really that ferocious? Hana smiles, looks to her brother Maysam, who is sitting grinning behind her, and nods: "Oh no." Her brother laughs. Hana continues. "Yes, she was angry with me, very angry with me sometimes, but also she allowed me to do what I wanted to." Even when that meant questioning her methods, and the ethics of her crew.
We see a production manager, searching for a sick baby to shoot, saying: "I''''ll pay anyone who shows me where the sick baby is." A homeless family are persuaded to hand over their child in exchange for cash and medical treatment. Passers-by, meanwhile, warn that the film-makers will kill the infant.
"Because I was a young girl, no one took me seriously and no one hid from my camera. They just thought I was a kid making a video. Afghanistan is hard. But I didn''''t interfere with anything. If someone did something, I put it in my film." It''''s the kind of fearless, clear-sightedness Samira also possesses, but Hana has a charm with it as irresistible as her sister''''s drive. As the youngest, I ask, did she always get away with murder? "Maybe," she laughs. "But I don''''t think so." Again, her photographer brother Maysam - the quiet man of the household - laughs. "Yes, she did."
Their father clearly dotes on his baby. At eight, Hana declared she no longer wanted to go to school. Instead she would be taught at the Makhmalbaf Film House, the academy-cum-studio Mohsen established at home in Tehran. "At school our teacher warned us to be careful not to remove our veils so we wouldn''''t go to hell, but in our house we learned about painting, photography, cinema, literature and poetry," Hana says.
It seems to have paid off. Hana has already exhibited her watercolors and photographs, and a long poem, Visa for One Moment, has been published in Farsi, English and French. In the foreword, her father wrote: "Hana has had one of the happiest childhoods anybody could have in the world. One of the reasons is that she did not have to go to school every day like an office clerk." He gets angry, he says, when people call his daughters geniuses. "It''''s about hard work and the desire to move ahead."
Hana herself thinks she is only "averagely intelligent ... When I was younger I made crooked paintings and my father framed and hung them, and discussed them with people, comparing them to the early works by Van Gogh and Picasso. He really raised my self-confidence by doing that. When I got older, I objected, but he said their juvenile works were as crooked as mine."
We all meet again later that night in Venice among the crush for the screening of the Coen brothers'''' shamelessly commercial Hollywood comedy, Intolerable Cruelty. It seems an incongruous place to find the latest prodigy from the conveyor belt of Iranian art house cinema. "I love George Clooney," Hana confesses excitedly. Just a normal teenage girl after all.
· Joy of Madness will be screened at the NFT, London SE1, as part of the London film festival, today and Thursday. Box office: 020-7928 3232