Has the mainstream finally lost interest in the wonderful world of the Makhmalbaf Film House? The latest offering by the Makhmalbafs is Buddha Who Collapsed Out of Shame, directed by 19 year-old Hana, produced by her older brother and written by her stepmother Marziyeh. When I checked on IMDB after a local screening, I was shocked to find only a handful of reviews and the normally authoratative Variety review was frankly pretty shoddy.
The simple story follows six year-old Baktay as she tries to find a school which will teach her the funny story that her next door neighbour Abbas has in his schoolbook. The quest takes all day in the small Afghani community of Bamian, housed in and around the cliffs where the Taliban shocked the world by blowing up a giant carving of Buddha.
Baktay faces all kinds of obstacles in her quest, not least the struggle to find 20 rupees to buy a schoolbook, pencil and rubber (eraser). The overall aim is to present the story as a metaphor for the struggle against the legacy of the Taliban – or rather the history of struggle against the Russians, the Taliban and now the Americans. In one sense, this is a typical Makhmalbaf production with a neorealist approach based on finding non-actors who can act out a simple story. Marziyeh Meshkini provides a script with several surrealist touches, but Hana makes it distinctive with her camerawork. As far as I could make out, the footage was shot on relatively low resolution DV and printed to 35mm film – so it looks rather ‘soft’ and sometimes a little pixellated. The most distinctive feature is the consistent use of big close-ups, especially of Baktay. I was surprised at how well the child was able to hold my attention and I became engaged in her quest, almost despite myself. At one point I could hardly watch her progress as she clutches four eggs in her tiny hands, offering them for sale at 5 rupees each. I was so fearful that she would drop them or that they would be stolen.
The strength of the simple story is that the audience is given time and space to decide what is important. Clearly, most will recognise the critique of the Taliban etc., but the film is not didactic. There is a discourse about what children learn from seeing violence for real (as Hana argues on www.makhmalbaf.com) but also a suggestion that children need to play and to explore the world around them. You can probably discern that Hana doesn’t think too much of teachers in a formal school system (she herself has mostly been educated at home). Baktay is likely to have learned more from her experiences than from the rote learning offered by the teacher. Interestingly, the most helpful to Baktay are Abbas – remarkably calm in the face of provocation – and the old man who promises to buy bread from her and does so.
I was most intrigued by two aspects of the film. The surrealist touches I assume came from Marziyeh and this film would make an interesting double bill with Marziyeh’s film The Day I Became a Woman (both are under 80 mins). I enjoyed the empty chairs and blackboard in the deserted field that served as a classroom and the wooden ducks in the river. I’ve no idea what they meant, but the images were striking. I also enjoyed the ‘violent’ kite seemingly attacking the community. And on an ethnographic note, I was intrigued by the range of facial features and hair colours amongst the children. One boy was seemingly of Russian parentage, several seemed to be from Central Asia and there were plenty of freckles and red-blonde fringes (emphasised by lipstick on young faces – and nail polish!). This presumably happy coincidence in the choice of non-actors worked well in Hana’s overall strategy.
I see no reason to abandon the Makhmalbafs – I’m sure they will keep astounding us for some time to come.