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Samira Makhmalbaf: Chipping away at deceit
IT IS amazing how a 23-year-old Iranian woman can be so well informed. Samira Makhmalbaf is extremely bright and sensitive for a woman who grew up in that part of the globe where those of her ilk are considered weaker, if not inferior, to men. Deliberately shut out from civilisation, women develop into what men want them to be: illiterate and ignorant.
But, Samira was lucky. Daughter of a renowned Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, she was born into a family enlightened enough to educate her and let her have the privileges that only boys or men enjoy in that country.
Given this atmosphere of refreshing liberalism, it is not surprising that Samira learnt the art of making movies. From her father, of course.
What astonishes one is that she began looking at this fascinating medium as a tool to communicate information, as a means to underline injustice, and not just as a string of pictures to entertain.
When this writer met Samira at the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival, where her third work, "At Five In The Afternoon," won a Jury Prize, one could not help noticing her pain for the suffering Afghans, and her passionate commitment to help them lead a better life.
``I hope my movie would tell the world that Afghanistan needs money and material, if its people were to emerge from the dark shadows of Western imperialism," Samira sounds almost angry.
``We live in a world where a single attack on the U.S. has led, in less than two years, to the collapse of two nations. If everything is so inter-related, how can the subjects of my film only relate to the place in which I happened to be born. How could I have remained a silent observer given the tragedies that have befallen Afghanistan and Iraq?'' Samira quips.
"At Five In The Afternoon," reflects this dilemma, and reveals the catastrophic misfortune of Afghans through the lives of four people: an old cart driver, his daughter, his daughter-in-law, and her infant child.
The man is a wall of prejudice that his daughter cleverly crosses. She cheats him to go to school, where she tells her teacher that she would like to be the President of Afghanistan (at Cannes, the Western Press wondered how many American girls would have said that.) but with fancy footwear on!
The movie shows in a rather endearing way her feminine traits: she changes into a chic pair of shoes the moment she is out of her father's vision.
Above all, Samira's creation emphasises the importance of aspiration and dream in especially women, while it paints the darker, depressing side of the society in a compelling, contrasting style.
One watches the horrible practice of men turning their faces to a wall the moment they see a woman without a burkha, and we soon understand that this is yet another way to humiliate and demean her.
Although Samira hopes that her film would help women to lead better lives — "My focus is always that, to try and improve the condition of those I talk about in my cinema'' — "At Five In The Afternoon" also captures the complex post-Taliban period. In doing so, she separates fact from fiction, and produces at least one illuminating example.
The Taliban is not wholly responsible for the plight of women. Samira makes this very clear when she explains that, ``there is a whole culture behind this tragedy." A piece of truth that emerges from the shadows of the five 0'clock sun.
Since she was 17, Samira has been chipping away at the fabric of such deceit. Her critically acclaimed directorial debut then, "The Apple" (featured at Cannes), was based on the real-life case of two girls segregated from society since birth by their parents. Her second work, "Blackboards" — about the harsh struggle of Kurds along the Iran-Iraq border — also won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000.
It is her latest movie, which is her most powerful. One reason can be that she has known Afghanistan intimately having visited it several times; she first went there with her father when she was eight.
Samira's comprehension of the nation is deep, and some of her explanations are profound. Take this, for instance. ``Like the old cart-driver in the film, who says in the end that he does not know where to go, the Afghans today are a bewildered lot. So complete has been the Talibanisation of their psyches!'' Samira avers.
However, she says that it is wrong to assume that only Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are Talibans.
``George Bush has been no less a Taliban in imagining that he can bring about democracy in Afghanistan or Iraq overnight. Democracy is a process, and it must take its own time to happen," Samira asserts boldly.
In any case, Afghanistan's challenge is not just democracy. It has many more hurdles to cross: fanaticism, ignorance, and hunger to name just three.
The region's problem is as deep-rooted as cancer; it has eaten into the very heart of the community. Terribly pessimistic, one would feel.
Yet, "At Five In The Afternoon" has a positive thread running through it. Its main protagonist, 23-year-old Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie), exudes this spirit, and her magnanimity, ambition and even wit (her conversation with a French soldier is hilarious) uplifted those at the French Riviera.
Samira plans to come to New Delhi with her picture this October. She is excited about this. "My father has been to India. My sister has. Not me,'' she rued.
In October 2003, Samira did come to India. She attended the International Film Festival of India at New Delhi.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 27 2003)