Samira Makhmalbaf: Like father, like daughter

The precocious daughter of an Iranian film legend has been captivating Cannes with her latest work. But is the 23-year-old director as in control as she seems? Fiona Morrow meets her and gets behind the hype
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The Independent Culture

Samira Makhmalbaf is talking. Well, reciting would be closer to the truth. She sits straight-backed, showing me her profile: chin up, with her hand lifted in front of her face as though delivering her words to an expectant world. It's quite a pose, regal even. But then Makhmalbaf is the Queen of Iranian cinema, a member of a cinematic dynasty set to rival one of the big Hollywood clans. Think Fonda. Think Douglas.

Dad is Mohsen, the celebrated director, former political prisoner, and writer, producer and editor of his eldest daughter's films. Now a mature 14-years-old, Samira's sister Hana has made a documentary (having directed a short film at the tender age of eight). Brother Maysam also has directorial credits, including the documentary How Samira Made Blackboards. Collectively, their talents (and their nepotism) are apparently endless.

But it's Samira with the pedigree among the junior Makhmalbafs; at 23 the director of three feature films - The Apple, Blackboards and, in competition this year at Cannes, At Five in the Afternoon, being touted by many for a major prize. So, naturally, she's precocious.

On a cloudy, Riviera afternoon she's dressed from top to toe in black: coatdress, trousers, high-heeled sandals, with a long chiffon scarf intermittently covering her coiled hair. She's tiny - maybe a size 6 - but with the most extraordinary eyelashes since Betty Boop. Glued on and crunchy with mascara, they seem to occupy most of her face, itself hiding under a thick pancake of make-up. The slap makes her look older, but not grown up, like a child who's plundered an older sister's vanity case.

Nevertheless, when she speaks, Makhmalbaf demands your attention: there's none of the shy, simpering coyness that often telegraphs a young interviewee's self-consciousness. Indeed, she's more like a fountain of furious opinion just waiting for the signal to begin gushing.

My first question provokes an answer of nearly 11 minutes, with barely a pause. This self-assurance is part of what has made Makhmalbaf a festival darling - the previous interview overran because the three middle-aged men asking the questions had to be physically prised away from her. (Another British journalist admitted that he very nearly proposed at the end of their time together.)

And it's entirely understandable: there's something undeniably captivating about a young woman so engaged with her work, particularly when that work tackles such meaty issues. At Five in the Afternoon was shot in Afghanistan after the bombings. A place where more than buildings were smashed with the fall of the Taliban: social mores took a tumble too.

Noqreh is 20, and finally in school - though her traditionalist father doesn't know it. Noqreh wears full burqa at home, only slipping it back from her face (and a pair of white high heels on to her feet) when out of sight. Living in the country's ruins, she nevertheless offers shelter to truckloads of the dispossessed, eventually leaving her own family homeless. Though they are in crisis - her brother is missing, leaving her sister-in-law distraught and with no milk to feed her newborn - Noqreh is interested in the bigger picture: she wants to understand how the newly imposed notion of democracy might improve the lot of her countrymen. And why a woman shouldn't be able to stand for president.

"Afghanistan is our neighbour," declares Makhmalbaf, swinging her long black headscarf as she returns to the profile pose. "We speak the same language. When my father made Khandahar, I saw the difficulties, the poverty, the homelessness - and the heavy shadow of men in the life of women."

She had turned her camera on the plight of Afghanistan once before, for the portmanteau film 09'11"01, with an oblique, ultimately perplexing discussion by very young Afghan schoolchildren of the twin towers' collapse. What exactly was she getting at?

There's a flicker of irritation, but she composes herself almost immediately, answering as though there was really no criticism to address: "When they asked me to talk about 11 September," she says, her gaze fixed firmly into the distance, "I thought the whole world had representation except for Afghanistan, so I decided I would be their representative and tell it from their point of view."

But the view of seven-year-old children is not necessarily the most useful, I suggest.

"I didn't want to make it too judgmental," she counters. "I wanted it to be innocent, through the eyes of the children."

Such a perspective is not unusual in Iranian cinema - often it provides a useful way to circumnavigate the country's censorship laws - but with Makhmalbaf, perhaps it is also connected with her own youth. She may be acting the sophisticate, but the act belies her essential immaturity.

Still, few 23-year-olds possessing similar chutzpah, would have the desire, let alone the political sensibility, to appoint themselves spokesperson for a nation as abused, degraded and damned unfashionable as Afghanistan. And for that she deserves all the credit afforded her.

"I wanted to see the reality of Afghanistan," she continues, unprompted. "America, like Rambo, went there and rescued the people from the Taliban government. We were told there was no more Taliban, no more fascism; from now on Afghanistan is a democracy.

"But I wanted to find the dignity in the lives of the people as they are living now. I wanted to find their words for the situation in which they live."

As a vocal opponent of the veiling of women, Makhmalbaf admits she had to put her own beliefs on hold: "I tried not to rush to judgement about those who believed in the Taliban," she explains with palpable sincerity. "Before, I thought of the Afghan women as having closed minds - that veiling their face also had veiled their desire. But when I arrived, I realised that the veil is the symbol of Afghan women. The symbol of all her power and her feelings of responsibility came from that." "Living under these restrictions is not good,' she adds, quickly and emphatically, "but the reality is that they gave women standing."

She likens it to the censorship laws under which she works: "Too much pressure will make you die, but a little makes you struggle. It makes you strong."

She should know: Makhmalbaf has made it absolutely acceptable for a woman to become a film-maker in Iran. I wonder whether she considers that achievement greater than her films themselves and she raises her eyebrows, before offering a brief nod of approval.

"I think at the beginning, one of the most important things was me, the story of me - a woman from an Islamic country making movies. And at the beginning that was good, because it broke the stereotype."

She decides not to tackle the rest of the question, so I throw it back in a different package: isn't it, I suggest, time she made a film without her father? Isn't she ready to move out of his shadow?

She receives this with more grace than I expect.

"I can see myself working without him," she says, after a moment or two's thought. "Sometimes I think I would like another person's ideas, particularly in the editing...

"But I can't ignore the relationship that I have with my father: he is also my teacher, my colleague and my friend. So sometimes, when I feel very strongly that I should separate from him, I also think that in a world where everyone is separating from the other, where the cult of the individual has taken hold so strongly, that having a family like this is a good model. It's a model for a good kind of life."

Asked to look forward, she says she can only see herself as a film-maker: "But I am in this world for the experience," she adds. "If I know what is going to happen forever, how can I live? What hope is there for tomorrow? There'd be nothing to see, nothing to do."

I ask her if, like Noqreh, she fancies herself president one day and she lets out an entirely girlish shriek.

"No," she giggles. "I don't want to be president. No, I don't like politicians at all."

Finally, the pose is cracked and Samira Makhmalbaf's face is shining with the natural beauty of youth. As I pack away my things, she spots Mohsen Makhmalbaf, just arrived, pulling a suitcase. "My father," she cries with obvious joy, immediately running to give him a big hug.

She may be a film-maker of international repute, but Samira's still her daddy's girl.

'At Five in the Afternoon' will be released early next year