Cinema: The girl with the movie camera

The Apple (PG)
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The Independent Culture
First, a little genealogy - or what in the screenwriting trade is called back-story. Samira Makhmalbaf, the (is this a world record?) 18-year-old Iranian who made The Apple, is the daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the director of Gabbeh and The Silence among others. Though a few of his films have been released in this country, Mohsen is better-known in the West as the film-maker impersonated by one of his more impressionable fans in Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up. (The film was based on a factual incident and Makhmalbaf played himself in it, as indeed did the hoaxer.) As for Kiarostami, by this stage it really shouldn't be necessary to identify him, even if filmgoers are likeliest to have encountered his name as the scenarist of Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon, the sole Iranian production to have known any real success in Britain.

Kiarostami's current (and deserved) reputation is as one of the modern cinema's half-dozen most brilliant directors and therefore - I repeat, therefore - one of the world's greatest living artists. We British have only very belatedly come to appreciate the paradoxes and provocations of the Iranian cinema. Even among, as they say, more discerning spectators, there probably exists a widespread belief that a typical Iranian film is a worthy but stylistically barren Third World tract which, yes, we all certainly support in principle, except that, tonight, well, you know, everyone says There's Something About Mary is a hoot, and God knows I need a good laugh, but next week, oh yes, next week we'll see it for sure. Nimby, in short - not in my back yard, not in my local cinema.

Such a view is not only narrow-minded but hopelessly in error. Not one of the films I cite above is a glum specimen of miserabilist realism: what is most astonishing about all of them is their extraordinary conceptual sophistication. Thus Close-Up is an infinitely more subtle interrogation of the honeycombed ambiguities of identity than John Guare's similarly themed play Six Degrees of Separation; and, except in the word's most meretriciously tinselly connotation, The Apple is a more "dazzling" exploration of the potentialities of pure cinema than, say, Velvet Goldmine.

Like a lot of recent Iranian films, its narrative premise is anchored in a true occurrence. After indignant neighbours alerted the authorities to the plight of 12-year-old twin girls, Massoumeh and Zahra, imprisoned all their lives by their parents inside a barred house in one of the poorer suburbs of Tehran, they were forcibly released by a social worker and encouraged to take their first waddling steps into the world. Makhmalbaf read of the incident and, by her own account, started filming a mere eight days later, initially on video as a movie camera wasn't immediately available to her.

Speed was essential to the project because the personalities of the girls, who were socially rather than mentally handicapped, were liable to undergo a dramatic transformation once they had been exposed to air and sunshine and the company of playmates their own age. Quite astoundingly, yet not all that surprisingly when one knows the contemporary Iranian cinema, Makhmalbaf actually got the two ugly little duckings to play themselves in the film (if "play" is an accurate word in this context). Not only that, she contrived to pull off the same trick with their pathetically whiny, self-pitying father, who was apparently willing to be seen fretting more about his own "dishonour" than his offspring's welfare, and, in a casting coup that truly beggars belief, their blind, foul-mouthed harpy of a mother, whose face we never once glimpse underneath her chador.

A blind woman rendered doubly blind, blind to the rest of the world, by her chador, that infallible signifier of fundamentalist obscurantism - if that were no more than a screenwriter's invention, one would dismiss the symbolism as just too crass for words. Yet the chador is real, the blindness is real and the woman is real, which means that, even as we deplore her intolerance and bigotry, we can only marvel at her readiness to expose herself - underneath a chador! - in a film. And a semi-fictionalised film at that, for The Apple is not a documentary.

Likewise with the father. In one scene, harangued by the social worker, he breaks down, snivelling about all the publicity the affair has received on television. Yet he himself is on film as he does so! The camera crew may have been small and discreet, but it was nevertheless positioned right there in front of him with its paraphernalia of wires and mikes and booms and gaffers and grips.

There are mysteries here which perhaps a Westerner can never fully penetrate, but one does have the sense, as with Kiarostami's films, that the cinema plays precisely the same role in Iran's collective imagination as television does in the West. It's media. So even those elements of society which one would have supposed most chronically resistant to its desire to infiltrate their privacy, even the older and tyranically hidebound generation, appear calmly to accept that, if they happen to be caught up in some controversial event of national interest - like the parents in The Apple - then it's perfectly normal that they be requested to re-enact, on screen, their own involvement in that event. If I'm right, such a primitive but potent form of what might be called interactive storytelling is a unique and rather amazing phenomenon.

But I've overlooked the film's true, enchanting raison d'etre, Massoumeh and Zarah. As they wander wide-eyed through Tehran, engaging for the first time in their lives with total strangers - a tiny ice-cream pedlar, two talkative hopscotch-playing girls, a mischievous tot dangling an apple on a string - we watch, hardly less wide-eyed ourselves, their social skills developing, their gawky, long-unused bodies awakening, from scene to scene, practically from shot to shot. It's an incomparably moving experience.