At Five in the Afternoon is an Iranian film made in Afghanistan. A young woman and her parents arrive in ruined Kabul. The young woman attends a newly opened school and she takes part in an exercise in which she argues her case to become the next president of the country. She meets various people, including a photographer, a poet and a French peacekeeping soldier. Her conservative father is troubled by his daughter’s assertiveness. When she is out of his sight, she lifts her veil and puts on a pair of Western court shoes.
Samira Makhmalbaf is currently the most visible member of the formidable Makhmalbaf Film House – the Iranian family of filmmakers. At Five in the Afternoon is her third feature and the second to win a prize at Cannes (after Blackboards in 2000). Ms Makhmalbaf was just 18 when she first presented The Apple (1998) to international audiences at various festivals. She also contributed one of the episodes to 11″9’01 (2003), the compendium film focusing on 9/11.
The Makhmalbaf family work together, with Samira and her younger sister, brother and stepmother learning from the established filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. All of them contributed in different ways to At Five in the Afternoon, but the film clearly bears the stamp of Samira.
All of the Makhmalbaf Film House productions appear to draw upon the approaches developed in Italian neo-realist cinema in the 1940s. They develop stories from the reality of people’s lives (rather than writing stories in order to create something to say) and they generally use ‘non-professionals’. These were two of the precepts adopted by Roberto Rossellini. At Five in the Afternoon sometimes resembles the Italian postwar films, with refugees and survivors of the war struggling to find food and shelter amongst the ruined buildings. Samira Makhmalbaf refers to this approach as allowing her to represent the ‘spirit’ of the people of Afghanistan – in direct contrast to the representations constructed by the global media such as CNN:
Basically, radio, TV and satellites are the official voice of regimes and powerful authorities but cinema is the only broadcast medium where the author voices the spirit of nations without any tribune. We understand the spirit of India from Satiyajit Ray’s films, not from musical video clips on satellite TV. Ken Loach presents the spirit of the British people, while the BBC or Tony Blair can only be the spokespersons of England’s official policies. (Cannes interview on www.makhmalbaf.com)
Perhaps it is her father’s teaching or perhaps she has developed her own sense of what it means to be a cinema auteur, aware of the political nature of the medium and the possibilities for individual expression. In answer to a question about whether or not the film is a ‘realistic portrayal’ of contemporary Afghanistan she says:
Godard says that at first cinema was for showing reality but now it has led to entertainment. In the film I tried as much as possible not to entertain – contrary to the style so much a part of the media – but also avoided passing any type of judgment. In that sense this film is similar to The Apple. I have tried to understand a father who is a supporter of the Taliban and their culture and a girl who opposes that culture and depict what exists not at present but what I prefer to exist.
I chose the film’s characters among ordinary people and got the film’s details from their lives. I picked up much of the dialogue while searching for actors and locations and from what I heard from ordinary people in the streets or markets and re-enacted them in the film. In contrast to those who are used to simplify complex matters I haven’t tried to blame the Taliban for all the problems or with their fall, like the American reportage, portray a non-existent well being after the conquest of Afghanistan by Rambo.
This film aims to understand and show the mystery of this region’s backwardness and the hidden war between the two generations of the past and present and the differences that exist between men and women’s situations.
As far as the realities of Afghanistan are concerned, this film is quite realistic in my opinion. On the one hand it also looks at the poetic side of cinema and not because one of the characters is a poet and reads a poem in the film. (Cannes interview ibid.)
This is an eloquent statement about an approach which combines ideas from neo-realism with elements of surrealism or perhaps ‘magic realism’ – a combination also identifiable in films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar 2000) and his second wife Marziyeh Meshkini (The Day I Became a Woman 2000). Samira Makhmalbaf knows Afghanistan from early experiences with her father’s productions and in her previous film she worked across another Iranian border in Kurdistan. She is able to find the actors and create the dialogue, almost from an ‘insider’s position’. Several commentators have suggested that she shoots in a documentary style. Yet she also chooses the incidents in the story and the locations so that they present poetic or perhaps symbolic images rather than something resembling a newsreel. The different feel that this gives the film is central to its message.
There are three broad categories of image in the film. Conversations or dialogues are conducted by characters shown in medium close-up and often facing the camera (without actually looking out towards the audience). This works particularly well when the central character Noqreh lifts her veil to speak, often amongst other women who are still covered. A complementary shot is the close-up of Noqreh’s feet as she slips between her workaday slippers and the white court shoes with a floral bow and a low heel. We spend some time following these feet across the ruined streets of Kabul. We are also offered a link to her father as we watch him washing his head and feet.
These shots are contrasted with the long shots of the environments of the characters, including the ruined palace, the wreck of an aircraft and other abandoned buildings. These shots are at once ‘realist’ with the crowds in dusty streets and ‘surrealist’ in the compositions of the women in blue-green burqas and umbrellas. Sometimes, they become symbolic as the motorised rickshaw passes the horse and cart.
The long shots also provide the means to move the narrative along in a series of long tracking or ‘travelling’ shots as we follow Noqreh through the city and across the desert, often with the high mountains on the horizon line.
A female perspective?
Samira Makhmalbaf, her younger sister and stepmother represent an unusual group of women directors in a society that has been reluctant to allow women to express themselves through the variety of media available to women in Europe and North America. How important is gender in influencing the ways in which Samira chooses to show the women of Afghanistan? There are practical advantages for a woman director working in Afghanistan and Samira does on occasion operate the camera (although the crew list shows a male sound recordist). Although Samira wrote the screenplay, the original story idea was her father’s. Making links between the material captured by the camera and the creative talent behind it is not straightforward. This is why the concept of ‘representation’ has so fascinated film and media theorists. Nevertheless, the public appearances of an eloquent and impassioned young woman filmmaker such as Samira Makhmalbaf must have some effects upon the reception of her film by audiences.
The heart of the film is in the way in which Noqreh moves between the interaction with her father and sister-in-law (the traditional Afghanistan) and a very different interaction with the poet and the soldier (the prospect of democracy in Afghanistan). The sequences in the school are somewhere between the two. There are several occasions when the struggle to define the possibilities for Afghan society are encapsulated in specific actions – e.g. when the photographer tells Noqreh to pull down her veil. He believes that this image of the ‘covered woman’ is the correct one for a candidate for the presidency.
The meeting with the French soldier (a consequence of the co-production deal?) enables the filmmakers to pose questions to a Western audience. What do we really understand as ‘democracy’? Is the soldier’s ignorance of or indifference towards how his president is elected very different to the Father’s reverence for a traditional Afghani way of life? Massoud Mehrabi (see web resource below) suggests that the search for water – always in short supply – is a symbol for the search for democracy. He notes that the water that is desperately needed to keep the baby alive is used by the Father for washing – cleanliness is more important than survival.
The poet appears to represent the sophisticated (optimistic?) view of what could happen in the new Afghanistan. How is this linked to the choice of Lorca’s poem about the bullfight for the title of the film and its opening and closing lines? The more you think about these ideas, the more the film becomes an intriguing commentary on “the new world order”. How must it feel to be an Iranian filmmaker, at odds with your own government, watching the Americans misunderstanding and threatening the futures of your neighbours in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Useful web resources
Interview with Samira Makhmalbaf by Sally Vincent
Article on the Makhmalbaf family by Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound, April 2004
Review by Massoud Mehrabi, Iranian film writer (in English)
Makhmalbaf Film House – a treasure house of interviews, articles, reviews, images compiled by the family and its collaborators.
Questions for discussion
1. How helpful is the suggestion that At 5 in the Afternoon employs both ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ in representing the new Afghanistan?
2. What did the film say to you about the possibilities for the future in Afghanistan? Which were the important scenes for you?
3. Do you think the gender of the filmmaker was important in the way the story developed and the ways in which characters were shown by the camera? Can you quote any examples?
4. Samira Makhmalbaf clearly believes that her film has a political purpose. How would you describe that purpose and do you think that she succeeds?
Roy Stafford 3/3/05
(These notes are a slightly adapted version of materials written for a screening of the film at Cornerhouse Cinema, Manchester in 2004)