Here come the Makhmalbafs. Are they geniuses or is it down to dad, asks Hannah McGill
Iranian House Style - Feature Article
Sight & Sound April 2004
Samira Makhmalbaf's third feature At Five in the Afternoon confirms her status as one of the most iconic auteurs of current world cinema – bathed in the reflected glory of a prestigious family name, admired as a gifted and original film-maker in her own right and adored for her rarity as a Middle Eastern female director still shy of her twenty-fifth birthday. The story of an ambitious young woman pursuing an education in post-war Afghanistan, At Five in the Afternoon was the first film to be shot in Kabul after the American bombardment. It premiered at Cannes in 2003 and was awarded the Jury Prize: six years after Abbas Kiarostami cemented the global standing of Iranian cinema by winning the Palme d'Or for A Taste of Cherry and three years after the threefold triumph that saw Samira take her first Jury Prize for Blackboards and Hassan Yektapanah and Bahman Ghobadi share the Caméra d'Or for Diomeh and A Time for Drunken Horses respectively. Of these three young directors, it was the photogenic Samira who proved the biggest PR draw, with journalistic curiosity about her personality and situation occasionally outstripping interest in her films. If Mohsen Makhmalbaf was one of the most prominent figures of the Iranian New Wave, his eldest child has lent that ongoing movement an appealing new face (and an appropriately youthful one for a country where 60 per cent of the population is under 25). Meanwhile, fans who'd wondered if there were any more like Samira at home got their answer in 15-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf's Joy of Madness , a documentary of the trials Samira endured while preparing to shoot in Kabul.
At 5 in the Afternoon (the title comes from a sorrowful Lorca poem about a bullfight) begins as a simple tale of ambition flourishing against the odds: 20-year-old Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaee) sneaks out to attend school, keeping her desire to learn secret from her traditionalist father, and after a classroom discussion decides she wants to become the next president of Afghanistan. She enlists the help of a young poet (Razi Mohebi), but their efforts to co-ordinate a campaign are interrupted by more pressing concerns such as the constant search for new lodgings and the health of Noqreh's sister-in-law's baby, who is wasting away for lack of food. Deprived of _adequate shelter and sustenance, the optimistic Noqreh faces relentless obstacles, and what began as an endearing youthful whim becomes a metaphor for the denial of potential and the suppression of hope. Samira Makhmalbaf's ambitious and complex film provides a melancholy portrait of a society in freefall – leavened by a hint of romance and flashes of almost screwball humour. Meanwhile Joy of Madness is a frank and fascinating record of its pre-production and chaotic casting process as the Makhmalbafs forcefully persuade their chosen performers to participate.
Born to Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his late wife Fatemeh Meshkini in 1980 and 1988 respectively, Samira and Hana dropped out of conventional education to enrol in the Makhmalbaf Film School. Here their father was their tutor, classes took place in the family home, and their select band of classmates was composed of friends and family including their brother Maysam and their stepmother Marzieh Meshkini. As Mohsen said in 2001, with typical tongue-in-cheek hauteur, "Five years ago, while I had been the most prolific Iranian film-maker, with 14 feature films, three shorts, 28 books and 22 editing credits over a 14-year career, I stopped making films and decided to make film-makers." Of course, that Makhmalbaf père stopped making films isn't strictly accurate: Kandahar (2001), the story of an Afghan woman's fraught attempts to return to her homeland, became one of his most admired works, and he has collaborated with Samira on the scripts and editing of all her features. But that he has successfully "made" film-makers (as he so tellingly puts it) seems beyond doubt – as Samira's three _features, Marziyeh's The Day I Became a Woman (a three-part examination of the stages of female maturity in Iran made in 2000) and Hana's Joy of Madness attest.
The Makhmalbaf family's production-line app-roach to film education is surely without a contemporary equivalent. Fearful of charges of nepotism, members of prominent Hollywood dynasties tend to channel their energies into distancing themselves from one another rather than into collaboration. (Imagine the cynical response if Sofia Coppola accepted as much open help and endorsement from her father as Samira does.) Perhaps Claude Chab-rol's repeated inclusion of family members within his creative workforce provides the closest parallel, though no other Chabrol has established an independent reputation let alone become a fixture on the red carpets of international film festivals.
The self-conscious and open interweaving of the Makhmalbaf family members' projects builds a united front of creative confidence and drive, while the making of each new film generates fresh myths and stories. Both Hana's Joy of Madness and Maysam's How Samira Made ''The Blackboard'' provide rich real-life backstories for the fiction films they accompany – as well as assisting in the construction of the nascent cult of Samira. Indeed, with such a wealth of publicity material and background information on offer, it becomes impossible to divorce Samira's personality and the trials she endures in realising her projects from the finished films. In How Samira Made ''The Blackboard'' she's a whirlwind of irrepressible physicality, herding massive crowds with the aid of a loudhailer, clinging to an actor's back to ensure he moves on time, clapping her hand over another's mouth to prevent him from speaking out of turn. Joy of Madness suggests increased fame has brought increased attitude: Samira's casting process is a kaleidoscopic and unpredictable onslaught of charm, aggression, hau-ghty disdain and shameless emotional blackmail.
Samira herself is quietly scathing about the awed fascination that has greeted her entrance on to the international stage. "They say, 'You are young', so I would have to be old. 'You are a woman', so I would have to be a man. 'You're from Iran'', so I would have to be from somewhere else. And some people told me, ''You're very small.'' So I would have to be a fat old man to make a movie!" Yet while the previous generation of Iranian directors had to wait for the world to catch up before they were fêted outside their own country, Samira’s canonisation is happening before our very eyes, with her image and status being deconstructed even as they are formed. It’s a set of attitudes that was hinted at in Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1989), which relates in semi-documentary style the real-life case of a Mohsen Makhmalbaf fan arrested for impersonating his hero.
Having matured in the 1980s and 1990s when European and American film-makers were already preoccupied with deconstruction, reflexivity and the cult of the auteur, modern Iranian cinema reached the wider world with directors such as Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, like Godard and Truffaut before them, self-conscious icons as preoccupied with the examination of their own fame, creativity and philosophy of representation as with straightforward storytelling or political concerns. This engagement with the artistic process is parabled in Makhmalbaf’s romantic folktale Gabbeh (1996) in which a woman reveals the love story behind the images she’s woven into a carpet. Here the weaving, dyeing and drying of the carpet all form part of the narrative, rendering the artefact and the act of its creation inseparable – just as within the Makhmalbaf universe every work of art contains the tale of its own construction, the creative process generates its own stories and the artist embodies her own work.
Thus Joy of Madness increases the socio-political potency of At Five in the Afternoon by revealing troubling parallels between the actors and characters. When a beggar family lend their sick baby to be filmed having been reassured it won’t be killed, the comforting distance conferred by the cinematic illusion collapses as we understand that the dangerously ill baby of the story is little more healthy in real life. And the family’s fear of the film-makers demonstrates the same gulf between the empowered artist and the disenfranchised masses as haunts Kiarostami’s work, particularly 1990’s Homework , an extended interview with schoolchildren about authority and study in which he inadvertently terrifies one of his young subjects. Samira asks Hana to stop shooting only once; Hana disobeys. "I tried not to bother Samira, and not to intervene in her job – but still to do my job," she says. "I told myself, I have to shoot all the time, and not miss one minute. If I miss a minute, I have not said all of the truth."
So are Samira and Hana simply weavers for their father’s wool? Samira defends the family tradition of collaboration – "In a world where everyone is separating, having a family like this is a good model" – but says she wouldn’t rule out working without her father in the future. "Sometimes I think I would like another person’s ideas, especially in the editing." Hana, meanwhile, rejects the idea with guileless certainty: "Samira is a girl and my father is a man; they are two different persons. Samira sees the world in one way, my father sees it another way. If you gave the same scenario to both of them, they would each make it in their own way."
But even Hana would surely have to acknowledge elements of a Makhmalbaf house style: the conscious politicisation of personal narratives; a poetic symbolism that privileges fleeting moments and physical details almost to the point of surreal fetishisation; moral, political and narrative ambiguities that demand the spectator’s active interpretation; the deployment of non-professional performers. Yet Samira’s personal poise and confidence bespeak a powerful intellectual independence and her age and gender as well as her artistic idiosyncrasies set her films apart from her father’s (in a manner that might stand further comparison with Coppola père and fille ). Samira is the same age as post-revolutionary Iran and has lived her life in a political and cultural climate strikingly different from that which turned her father into a teenage guerrilla. At the age when Mohsen took up arms against the regime of Shah Pahlavi, enduring imprisonment and torture for assaulting a policeman, Samira registered her own dissent with her first feature The Apple (1997), which enlisted the true story of two little girls imprisoned by their over-protective father to serve as an allegory for the restrictions placed on all Iranians, particularly women. As Hamid Dabashi puts it in Close-Up: Iranian cinema past, present and future : "Mohsen Makhmalbaf may have taught his daughter how to make films, but she has taught her father how to liberate a nation." Samira acknowledges the irony of a country where women are veiled and oppressed producing a prolific female director, phrasing her explanation in characteristically poetic terms: "Iranian women are like fresh-water streams: the more pressure is applied, the more force they show when they are freed."
Hana, meanwhile, found her gender and youth an advantage when shooting Joy of Madness . "I had a better situation than my father. If my father goes to a house, all the people are angry because he’s a man, and he’s big. Because I was a young girl, they didn’t take me seriously; I was just a kid with a camera." Though she insists that "I was making a film thro-ugh my own point of view; if somebody else made this film, it would be totally different", she’s aware of the advantages she inherited along with the family name: "I was born into a family with a great love of cinema. All the time, even when we were going to sleep, our father was speaking about cinema, and teaching all the time, teaching everybody."
Like her father, Samira sees her own role as a film-maker as both inspirational and pedagogic. "Because I had a better situation, better opportunities, compared to other women, I always feel a responsibility for these women. I think I have to do something." And perhaps she has succeeded: certainly it’s notable that of the significant Iranian films released since The Apple , Jafar Panahi’s _ The Circle (2000), Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar and Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) focus almost exclusively on female experience. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that it is male characters who now seem ‘veiled’ and ambiguous in Iranian cinema.
But unfortunately, several of the progressive Iranian films fêted by international critics and festival juries are never seen by the people they depict. Panahi’s The Circle and Crimson Gold (2003), Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Time of Love (1991) and The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood (1991), Hana’s short The Day My Aunt Was Ill and even How Samira Made ‘The Blackboard’ (because she is seen with too low a neckline) are all banned in Iran. Indeed, local cinema programmes are dominated by Bollywood musicals, Hollywood action movies and Iranian genre films, primarily comedies, violent action pieces and bloody war thrillers such as Ahmad-Reza Darvish’s Duel , set during the Iran-Iraq war and made with a record budget of some $1.2 million. Yet there are signs that controls are being relaxed and certainly this year’s Fajr International Film Festival (where Duel won numerous awards) strove for international recognition as never before, launching its own website and welcoming western distributors for the first time. The Iranian ministry of culture maintains a contradictory stance towards its international stars, celebrating such renowned names as Kiarostami, Panahi and the Makhmalbafs as success stories while remaining suspicious of their work, with films often cleared for shooting only to be banned for release.
In effect, it’s as if there were two Iranian cinemas: one composed of thoughtful, quietly subversive films that earn praise abroad, the other of safe commercial product aimed at the domestic market. Perhaps it’s not such an unusual set-up – after all, the disenfranchised working-class teenagers of Europe hardly flock to see Lilya 4-Ever or Sweet Sixteen . And, like Benazir Bhutto – Noqreh’s role model in At 5 in the Afternoon – Samira Makhmalbaf provides inspiration by her very presence. (Even Empress Farah Pahlavi, widow of Shah Pahlavi, said in a 2003 interview: "When I see Samira Makhmalbaf once again awarded in Cannes, I feel proud.") This positive legacy is neatly illustrated in How Samira Made ''The Blackboard'' when one of the formerly cowed prisoners of The Apple declares she now wants to become a film director. As Samira herself acknowledges: "I think at the beginning one of the most important things was me, was the story of me – a woman from an Islamic country making movies. My situation isn't normal in Iran, but things are getting better. So many Iranian women would like to become film-makers."