Thursday, December 16, 2004

At Five In The Afternoon

Last night's screening in our "Between War and Peace" season was Samira Makhmalbaf's At Five In The Afternoon. The film's title is taken from a refrain in a famous poem by Lorca, "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias" which begins
At five in the afternoon.
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready prepared
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone
at five in the afternoon.
This the third film from the young Iranian director who, it should be remembered, is still only 24 years-old though she is a veteran of the filmmaking world as a long-time assistant of her celebrated father Mohsen. Indeed the Makhmalbaf family (including the 14 year-old Hana) have long been at the centre of the flowering of Iranian cinema, a development that has been as illuminating as it has been unlikely. Samira made her name with the docudrama The Apple and followed this up with a humanist masterpiece Blackboards which depicted itinerant Kurdish teachers who scour the borderlands in search of pupils. She also contributed a segment of the magnificent collaborative film 11'09"01, one of eleven reflections on the events of September 11.

At Five In The Afternoon is the first film set in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. The ruins of Kabul provides an unsettling quality of its own, in a way reminiscent of the Italian neo-realist masterpieces such as Rome, Open City. The narrative is driven by the apparently forlorn quest of its lead character - Nogreh - to pursue her dream of knowledge and education in the face of opposition from her ultra-conservative father. Nogreh's great hope is to one day become president of Afghanistan. The tensions between the residues of the old regime and its values and the painful birth of a new beginning - and above all a new beginning for Afghan women - are constant and never fully resolved. Samira uses a number of devices to depict these tensions. Most obviously it is symbolised by Nogreh's switch of shoes to a pair of forbidden white high heels as she leaves home, though she seems most liberated when she plays hopscotch in her bare feet. And then there is the contrast between the unbending old man, railing at the blasphemy that he believes now engulfs Kabul, and the idealistic young poet, a returning refugee, who recites the Lorca poem while gently teasing Nogreh's political ambitions.

film does not offer any easy solution to the grave problems faced by Afghanistan at this time and by Afghan women in particular. The last twenty minutes or so are implacably sad like a huge sombre weight. Indeed some have criticised the film for only offering us a sense of death and extinction. Samira herself has said the country is like “a home burning in the fire of tribalism, bigotry, ignorance and poverty”. Elsewhere, she accepts that moving toward democracy is a process that will take a long time. And there is certainly a brutal harshness about the unfolding of the film’s narrative. There is no easy optimism here.

And yet Samira has also spoken of a more hopeful world in the making. She illustrates this in two ways. The first is to do with the hard time she had in convincing the actress who plays Nogreh to take the role and also her growing confidence that by doing so she was helping Afghan women to overcome their fear of the cinema. And the second is her forceful reminder of the power of collective solidarity in the face of hostility and indifference. “The survival of any from this inferno of a house”, she says, “is impossible without rescuing others". Watch the film.


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