A year after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, the young Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf arrived in search of a story. She knew she wanted to make a film about the country, as a way to give a voice to its people. Afghanistan was visible to the wider world only through news broadcasts and politicians’ speeches: it was defined by outsiders who frequently represented themselves as ‘saviours’ who’d gone in to ‘liberate’ its people. Makhmalbaf wanted to tell the story of the people left on the ground: to show, frankly and compassionately, the ruined lives and hopes of the people of Kabul. It’s a very slow film, but beautifully made with an entirely amateur cast, and it gets under the skin of a society on the brink of recovery from horrific trauma, in a way that earnest western journalists never could.
Nogreh (Agheleh Rezaie) lives in war-torn Kabul with her father (Abdolgani Yousefrazi) and her brother’s wife Leylomah (Marzieh Amiri). Scraping a living among the bombed-out ruins of the city, they wait for her missing brother Akhtar to return from his work as a truck driver out in the countryside. Every day more trucks of refugees arrive from over the mountains in Pakistan and the demand for space and shelter grows more acute. Nogreh’s father works as a driver, his horse and cart his most prized possessions, while Leylomah lingers at home, anxiously waiting for Akhtar and fretting over her sick baby. Nogreh’s task is to find water for their cooking, cleaning and washing and, of course, so that they and the horse can all drink. But Nogreh has one small glimmer of joy in her life. Although her father is deeply conservative and devout, he allows her to go to school.
Norgeh’s father thinks that she is attending the religious school, where women swathed in blue burkas learn to recite texts from the Qur’an, focusing on those which stress female inferiority and sinfulness. But in fact Norgeh has fallen into the habit of sneaking out a side door and going down the road to a different school: a girls’ school which encourages its students to question, to improve themselves and to have ambitions. When her teacher asks the class what they want to do as a career – teachers? doctors? engineers? President of the Republic? – Norgeh is suddenly struck by the realisation that a woman could, in theory, be President just as easily as a man. Listening to her classmates arguing – some insisting that a woman can’t be President if she has to care for her children and wear a burka – others claiming that women are perfectly capable of being independent and visionary – Norgeh conceives her own dream. She wants to be President.
But how do you become President? In the most delightful section of the film, Norgeh sees possibilities everywhere. When she and her family find shelter in the ruined palace in Kabul, she paces its grand corridors wearing her secret, beloved white heels (the shoes her father never sees), imagining what it would be like to have power. She wonders what kind of speeches presidents are expected to make. She collars Pakistani refugees and demands to know about Benazir Bhutto, but no one has anything to tell her. What do they care about Bhutto when their homes are lost; when they can’t read or write; when their children have been slaughtered in the name of politics? But one person is engaged by Norgeh’s dream. A young refugee poet (Razi Mohebi) is rather taken with her determination and decides to help her – giving her advice on public speaking, taking her to have photographs made for her campaign posters and inspiring her. His attentiveness is a form of gentle courtship, but it also suggests a new hope, a new era, for Afghanistan. This film isn’t a feel-good wish-fulfilment fantasy, I hasten to add: the hope comes not in achievement of a dream, but in the fact that a young woman can dare to dream at all.
The title of the film comes from a poem that the poet writes out for Nogreh: the first section of Federico García Lorca’s Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias. But what does it mean? Is it an allusion to loss, destruction, absence, grief? Is it about death or transcendance? Whatever it means, it’s striking to see the characters find an expression of their feelings through the words of a European writer, and it’s one of two moments where you see this very unfamiliar world interacting with western culture. The other moment is a wonderful little scene where Nogreh encounters a peacekeeper, a French soldier patrolling the palace grounds. She resolutely goes down to practice her English with him and you see how the grand apparatus of war fades away in the face of two people attempting to have a conversation – a simple conversation, but one which hints at bridges to be built.
As Makhmalbaf intended, you see these people not as ‘Afghans’ or ‘victims’ or ‘Muslims’ but as more complex individuals, men and women who are human, who are moved by poetry and who are full of hopes and dreams and longings, just as we ourselves are. Remarkably, she never judges – despite the temptation that must have been present to a young and emancipated woman used to the greater freedoms of Tehran. She deals as compassionately with the older generation as with the younger, exploring the troubled consciences of older men who find themselves in an increasingly ‘blasphemous’ world which goes against their extreme understanding of their faith. But you feel that her heart is with the young women, whether those who dare to dream of a different world, like Norgeh, or those who have been ground down by existence, like the weary Leylomah. I was amazed by Marzieh Amiri’s expressions: the sense that I had of the unbearable weight of her soul, patterned in her knotted brow. How old was this young woman? Almost certainly only in her early twenties, and yet in our pampered West you forget how war and suffering can age people far beyond their years. If Norgeh is the face of the future, poor Leylomah is the face of the exhausted present, reduced to need that is almost beyond comprehension.
There’s much here that isn’t familiar to a western mind and it can be disorientating to try to understand Afghanistan through Norgeh’s eyes. Rezaie is a very serene actress, her face often set in an expression of resigned patience with the odd cautious flutter of a smile – she is not an expressive actress, but is Norgeh meant to be an expressive character? This young woman and her generation have seen horrors. They have seen friends and family killed and they live in a city which is still riddled with mines and full of people who resent the greater visibility of women in the wake of Taliban rule. In some reviews that I’ve read, critics have complained that Norgeh’s ‘opacity’ is a flaw in Rezaie’s acting, but I choose to read it as a conscious decision: a true representation of a soul so numbed to violence that it hardly reacts any more to the setbacks of life – sudden deaths, everyday terror, having to keep moving from place to place – and only comes to life in moments of innocent hope.
The special features on the DVD are worth watching. There’s an in-depth interview with Makhmalbaf herself about her reasons for the making the film and how she managed to persuade her amateur Afghan cast to trust her. Listening to her speak, passionately and articulately, I was struck by her ambition. This young woman, only in her early twenties at the time, went into Afghanistan to put together a cast and crew and tell the stories of the people she met. Makhmalbaf noted that her struggles paid off in the end: hers was one of the first films made in post-Taliban Afghanistan (the other, which I also intend to watch, was Osama). She had to create skills as she went, training technicians and encouraging her cast to have the courage to act, especially tackling the reluctance of her female cast to appear unveiled in front of the camera. She blazed a trail for others to follow; and they have. In the aftermath of Five in the Afternoon, the crew formed by Makhmalbaf worked on other films set in Afghanistan and have formed the basis for the gradual development of the country’s own cinema. Razi Mohebi, for example, the young poet, also served as assistant director on both this and Osama, and has since been directing his own shorts. Both Rezaie and Yousefrazi have acted in other films. It’s an encouraging sign.
Another of the features is a thirteen-minute ‘making of’ documentary about the film. I’ve chosen not to watch this, because I’m going to watch Joy of Madness, a feature-length documentary famously made simultaneously by Makhmalbaf’s little sister Hana. (Their family is Iranian cinematic royalty, as their father Mohsen is an established director: the genes obviously kick in early, as Hana was only fourteen at the time of this debut.) This documentary looks more closely at the various challenges Samira Makhmalbaf faced in making a film in Kabul at this time, and it promises to be illuminating – as is Five in the Afternoon – not just for its insight into cinema, but as a valuable picture of a society whose realities are too often hidden from us in the West.