Samira Makhmalbaf portrays the big dreams, but small triumphs of Afghan women at Cannes
The extraordinary Young Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf is back and holding center stage yet again in the 56th Cannes Film Festival with her film "At Five in the Afternoon", a simple, but powerful tale that is believed to be a strong contender for top prize.
"At Five in the Afternoon", which is the first film to be shot in post-Taliban Afghanistan, perceives the social conflict in Afghanistan through the ups and downs in the relationship between a tradition-bound man and his daughter. As the schools reopen in the country after the fall of the Taliban, the little girl wants to be the President of the Republic. The father represents the old generation, while the daughter is the face of a new Afghanistan that is struggling to assert itself in the face of daunting adversities.
The young girl, who has been enrolled in a school that has 12-year-olds and 20-year-olds all dumped into the same class, has a big dream (wanting to be her country's first female president) and enjoys small triumphs, like defiantly lifting her burqa (a veil worn to cover the face) to take strolls.
Some of the scenes are based on Makhmalbaf's own experiences. At a Kabul hotel, an old man turned to the wall when she passed by wearing only a headscarf, not the long, face-covering burqa. Though parts of the film have elements of light comedy, it gradually becomes darker and darker. When the girl's strict father pulls her out of school and sets off on a trek to a less “blasphemous” place than Kabul, the movie begins to resemble a pitilessly bleak journey into darkness similar to Kandahar, the pre-war film by Samira’s father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Makhmalbaf's leading actress in the movie is Agheleh Rezaie, who was a schoolteacher raising three children on her own. Her husband has been missing since the United States bombed Afghanistan. Rezaie's moon-shaped face is deeply expressive and her eyes at times, swim with tears; other times, rinkles appear at the sides of her mouth as though she's trying to subdue a giggle. Makhmalbaf worked hard to persuade Rezaie to take the role.
According to several news agencies, many scenes have a haunting beauty. At one point, Noqreh's (played by Rezaie) homeless family finally finds a shelter; the camera pulls back and you see they've moved into the fuselage of an airplane that crashed in the desert. Several times, Noqreh slips off her battered black flats and puts on a pair of white jeweled high-heels. The shoes are a symbol of womanhood and power in a country where "behaving like a woman is a sin," Makhmalbaf said.
For all its optimism at the outset, the movie has a bleak -- almost hopeless -- conclusion. "Afghanistan's history is so sad. It's not, 'America went there and everything is solved,"' Makhmalbaf said. "I tried to show the reality of Afghanistan. Not my desires about what Afghanistan could be."
In her own words, "she was first exposed to the land as a child when her father made The Cyclist". She got to know Afghan refugees on the set of the film in Iran. Her interest in Afghanistan has been rekindled not only by political developments around the world – 9/11, the search for Osama bin Laden, et al – but also by the fact that her father made a film titled Kandahar well before the attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York.
The movie's 23-year-old director is one of a handful of moviemakers bringing cinema to Afghanistan since the demise of the Taliban regime that banned music, television, movies and theater, and regular at Cannes showing her third movie at Cannes. She was the youngest director ever in competition four years ago with her film, The Apple, has been back since with Blackboards, and now this film. It is an unusual mix of the light and grim. The competition is stiff, but Samira's film clearly has the potential to cut across all divides of age, gender and history.
More widely known as the "Festival de Cannes", the Association Française du Festival International du Film, created in 1946, is a French association under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, state-approved in 1972. –Albawaba.com
© 2003 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)