It's a family affair

It's tough being a film-maker in Iran, says Jonathan Romney. So it's all the more remarkable that the Makhmalbafs - including 14-year-old Hana - have turned it into a family business
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The Independent Culture

Compared to the Iranian film-making family Makhmalbaf, even Hollywood's Coppola clan look like under-achievers. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the father, has been one of the leading directors in Iranian cinema since the early Eighties, but nowadays his fame on the international film circuit has arguably been eclipsed - with his full backing - by that of his daughter, Samira. Now 24, Samira Makhmalbaf made her first feature, The Apple, at the age of 17; her third, At Five in the Afternoon, has just opened in Britain. Meanwhile, Samira's younger sister Hana has directed Joy of Madness, a video documentary about Samira's film; she was 14 when she shot it (and eight when she made her first short), breaking world records for cinematic precocity.

In addition, brother Maysam, an accomplished photographer, has made his own documentary about Samira's burgeoning career, while the children's stepmother, Merzieh Meshkini, assistant director on several of the family's films, made her own mark as a director with an acclaimed first feature, the three-part portmanteau The Day I Became a Woman (2000).

You imagine that whenever a child is born into the Makhmalbaf family, the infant is expected to present its showreel before its umbilical is cut. How did this clan come to be so precocious? By design, it seems. Mohsen Makhmalbaf has said that he one day decided, "Instead of creating films, I was going to create film-makers." The decisive moment seems to have been Samira's decision to leave school at 14, tired of "cliché". "I hate any kind of cliché," she says vehemently. "I hated school because they tried to just give you answers, answers, answers and not let you experience or ask questions or see differently. Anyhow, I tried to flee from it."

This led her father to dream of a new educational approach. At first, he applied to the Iranian Ministry of Culture to train 100 cinema students, but was turned down - the reason being, he says, that "one dangerous film-maker like me was enough for one country." Instead he took on eight students chosen from family and friends, including his children and their stepmother Meshkini, whose late sister had been his first wife. The various films made by the family members have been school projects, produced under the banner Makhmalbaf Film House.

By all accounts, the school offers a rigorous and eclectic curriculum, not just film but "equal parts life and art", as Mohsen puts it: everything from cycling, swimming and skating ("A film-maker needs to be physically strong") to cooking, computer science and languages, quite apart from the range of conventional filmic skills. The method involves focusing on a single subject every month for eight hours a day, on a principle of strict immersion; as Hana put it, "If School of Makhmalbaf has one principle, that is the principle of concentration."

Mohsen's work as an educationalist - since his famous film Kandahar, he has been involved in setting up schools for Afghan children - is the culmination of a strange career. He was once a militant fundamentalist, shunning cinema in his youth; in 1974, as an anti-Shah activist, he was arrested after stabbing a policeman. Imprisoned for four years and undergoing torture, he then started making films informed by his fundamentalist beliefs. But he soon abandoned his former position in favour of a secular humanism, and films such as The Cyclist (1989) - about a man undergoing a marathon cycling ordeal to feed his family - made him a hero of Iran's disadvantaged, who saw him as a spokesman. At one point, he was even impersonated by an unemployed printer, an episode recorded in Abbas Kiarostami's film Close-Up; in his trial, the printer, Hossain Sabzian, accused of deceiving a wealthy family, explains his motives. "I wanted them to see me as a director who is aware of people's sufferings and difficulties. A director who is modest enough to mingle with ordinary folk," says Sabzian, halfway to believing he is Makhmalbaf.

In fact, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film-making is not social realism, but rather involves a self-conscious analysis of how film-making affects people's lives. His quasi-documentary A Moment of Innocence (1995) is cinema as public reconciliation, a coming-to-terms with the man he once stabbed, in which the policeman himself is encouraged to direct his own version of events.

Because of Mohsen's involvement, some critics have been prone to downplay the role of the other Makhmalbafs in their own work. True, Mohsen is credited as co-writer on Samira's and Meshkini's films. And there is certainly something of a Makhmalbaf house style, a penchant for stark borderline-surreal images with an allegorical slant, such as the vision of life as a bicycle race in Meshkini's film, Samira's blackboards doubling as walls and shields in her second feature, or the prosthetic legs parachuted down onto the minefields in Kandahar. If these films appear to be "School of Makhmalbaf", in both senses, it's understandable that the family share a communal vision, given all the time they have spent training together. Besides, the children are happy to pay Mohsen due homage as an influence: "All of my childhood memories," Samira has said, "are mixed with scenes from the films my father made."

Attempts to downplay Samira's own art, however, are very misguided. Her siblings' footage of her at work shows a fierce will to coax, cajole and manipulate. On the shoot of Blackboards, she's seen wading into an icy river to encourage a cast of elderly Kurdish non-professionals, or pressing a hand over actors' mouths to guide their performance. In Joy of Madness, she's unceremonially direct, shocking a prevaricating elderly mullah with her distinctly untraditional lack of deference; or alarmingly hard-nosed, as she tells her prospective lead actress, "If someone younger shows up tomorrow, we'll choose her."

And while Mohsen Makhmalbaf has long been something of a popular hero in Iran, Samira is now by far the most prominent family member abroad. She is a skilled and self-possessed media operator, a glamorous figurehead not only for young Iranian cinema, but also - whether or not she intends to be - for young Islamic women. Already a seasoned veteran of the festival press conference circuit (Maysam's film features copious footage of her no-nonsense approach at Cannes), Samira packages herself with assured style: conducting interviews in accomplished English, she repeatedly flicks her hijab with long manicured fingers, giving this regulation covering a touch of disarming chic.

Samira's 1998 debut, The Apple, was a quasi-documentary about two young Tehran girls who had been effectively imprisoned at home for 12 years by their impoverished parents; in semi-fictional form, the film showed the sisters' first exposure to the world and was widely read as a protest against fundamentalist patriarchy. Blackboards, the follow-up, followed two itinerant teachers through an arresting, austere mountainous region of Iranian Kurdistan.

By contrast to these films' authoritative concision, their follow-up, At Five in the Afternoon, feels more diffuse and tentative, a set of powerful images and arguments in search of cohesion. Even so, it's Samira's most ambitious and most direct statement. She shot it in and around Kabul using non-professional actors to ponder Afghanistan's post-Taliban future and to ask whether Afghan women will definitively emerge from under the burka to take power. The film begins at a secular school for girls, where the assembled pupils debate whether an Afghan woman can ever become a Benazir Bhutto or an Indira Gandhi.

But for Samira, Taliban also denotes a state of mind that knows no barriers: she says, "We have our own Taliban, Afghan people have their own Taliban, American people have their own Taliban." Inescapably, At Five in the Afternoon resembles a statement as much about Iranian as about Afghan women. Is filming in another country a way for Samira to bypass Iran's notoriously stringent censorship? "I made this movie in Afghanistan," she says, "[but] it's also the story of Iran. Through this movie, I could talk about the situation in Iran maybe easier than I could do in Iran."

Samira first visited Afghanistan at the age of eight, when she acted in her father's film The Cyclist. She returned with Mohsen in 2001, when he made Kandahar, the first feature to convey a vivid sense of the reality both of Taliban rule and of landmines. Samira made her new film, she says, out of a sense of a responsibility to the Afghan people. "They didn't have any person to feel responsible about them - they didn't have anybody to talk deeply, to go there, see the reality. I feel I love the people - in a way, we have the same language, the same culture."

Hana's documentary, Joy of Madness, shows Samira in Afghanistan leading a discussion about female presidency, much like the one in her film. You wonder what Afghan women must have made of such a confident foreign woman, given their own years as effective outlaws in their own land. "I imagined I was going to see very backward women," Samira says, "but they were very powerful, and they were changing a lot." Nevertheless, she was aware of seeing the residue of a culture of fear and, at first, much anxiety that the old order might return. "It's better now, they don't think so much about Taliban coming back, but women are afraid of doing something because of the tradition."

That sense of fear - at least, of understandable caution - is visible in Joy of Madness, which records Samira's attempt to cast actors for At Five in the Afternoon. Not surprisingly in a country where images were so long proscribed, people were none too sure what was involved in the idea of appearing in a film; Hana's footage follows her sister's negotiations with prospective actors, watching as various interviewees say yes or no, repeatedly change their minds, or cautiously warm to Samira's sometimes charming, sometimes downright ferocious approach.

Samira emerges as altogether ruthless about getting what and who she wants for her film, not always likeably. Even so, Hana seemed to be under no restrictions from her sister as to what she could or couldn't show. At one point, in fact, Samira tells Hana to stop shooting; she simply ignores her.

Since Cannes last year, Samira has been graciously telling interviewers that Hana's film is better than hers, that it's more revealing about Afghanistan. For her part, Hana - in an interview posted on the Makhmalbaf family website - is keen to emphasise that Joy of Madness is not just a promotional sidebar for At Five in the Afternoon. Her own film, she says, "is apparently about Samira looking for actors in Kabul but it is an independent film about four people in Afghanistan." She sees Joy of Madness as being "about the fear of a society."

While the Makhmalbafs' recent work has reached the world, finding an Iranian audience remains a problem, says Samira. Several of their films have fallen foul of Iran's notoriously stringent censorship. Even the short Hana made at eight was banned, because it showed a girl wearing a T-shirt with too short sleeves; so was Joy of Madness, because Samira's headscarf was deemed insufficiently modest. Samira's films have now been screened there, to a limited degree, while At Five in the Afternoon has had a relatively easy ride, she says, because it's seen as "an Afghan movie. We always have the problem of censorship. At the moment it's better, because we can make a movie. But then they ban it." There are also subtler pressures from the government: "All the time it's, 'You are not showing the beauty of our country,' or 'You are just making films for foreign countries.'"

Meanwhile, Samira carries a responsibility that few film-makers have to contend with, partly by virtue of her youth, partly by virtue of being the only young female director from an Islamic country to achieve international fame - and who knows how many or how few will follow her.

She knows she has become a figurehead, and seems willing to live with it. "I didn't try to be a symbol, I didn't think, 'I'm a woman and I'm young.' I just wanted to make films. But it happened that I was a symbol for something. It's bad because we don't have so many women film-makers, so many young film-makers, so it seems I was one of the first persons breaking the cliché. But it's good, because when you break the cliché, some other people come. We need one person to do something, then after, it's easy. At the same time..." she breaks off and sighs wistfully, "I like feeling responsibility about a thing." Arguably more than anyone else in world cinema, Samira Makhmalbaf embodies a new spirit, which may yet have its day. Watching her severe yet joyous films, and seeing her determined command of the media, you can't help but feel that tomorrow belongs to her. Or if not to her, then to others like her and her sister, yet to emerge.

'At Five in the Afternoon' is reviewed on page 19. 'Joy of Madness' is released on 11 June

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