Five years ago, while I had been the most prolific Iranian filmmaker, with 14 feature films, 3 shorts, 28 books, and 22 editing credits over a 14-year career, I stopped making films and decided to make filmmakers. (1)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf may have taught Samira Makhmalbaf how to make films, but she has taught her father to liberate a nation. (2)
The Makhmalbaf Film School was established in 1996 by post-revolutionary Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf as a way of sharing his substantial knowledge and experience in film. Initially, State support was sought and a wider student base expected, but eventually an enrolment of eight students drawn from family and friends was settled upon. The four-year program involved a broad-based education that focused on individual topics for specified periods of time. The school was positioned as part of Makhmalbaf Film House, an overarching infrastructure which also included a production arm to help finance and distribute films made under the auspices of the school. (3) Set up in the Makhmalbafs’ Teherani house – hence the name – the school allowed its students to major in a particular discipline of filmmaking. Three students chose direction including Samira Makhmalbaf (Mohsen’s daughter) and Marzieh Meshkini (Mohsen’s second wife and Samira’s step-mother). Each of the films produced during this period – including Mohsen’s The Silence (1998) and The Door (1999) – were made, at least partly by the school and its connected production company, and involved most of the students in one role or another. For example, Samira’s younger sister, Hana, shot the stills photography for the first story of Meshkini’s debut feature The Day I Became a Woman (2000), while her brother, Maysam, made a documentary profiling the making of Samira’s second feature Blackboards (2000) and its first international screening at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival (called How Samira Made The Blackboard ). Many of the students also worked as assistant directors on The Silence. In the annals of film history, it is difficult to find an equivalent combination of artisan-based filmmaking with a family co-operative, that simultaneously produced such striking and individual works (though connected in approach, each of these three major filmmakers – Samira, Mohsen and Meshkini – exhibit distinctive stylistic qualities and thematic concerns). The only international equivalent would be the work of the Coppola clan, but that collaboration has arguably yielded inferior results. (4)
Many critical discussions of the films made by the Makhmalbaf Film School include a disclaimer denying or qualifying the central, patriarchal and/or explicitly auteurist role played by Mohsen in the conception and production of individual films. (5) This disclaimer is a response to what is perceived to be the dominant and sexist critical attitude generally taken up by popular criticism when discussing the films directed by Samira Makhmalbaf and Marzieh Meshkini: The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1997), Blackboards and The Day I Became a Woman. These ‘popular’ or general accounts often discount the female-centred authorship and specificity of the films by pointing to what are perceived as the obvious ‘fingerprints’ of Mohsen’s involvement and influence. Nevertheless, neither of these two ‘single-author’-based approaches adequately recognises the extraordinarily collaborative nature of the filmmaking process involved (a characteristic of Iranian cinema in general) nor the impact of certain ideas and concepts imparted by Mohsen’s teaching. (6) As teacher, mentor and aesthetic model, Mohsen’s filmmaking practice does loom large over each of these films, and his contribution with respect to story outlines, initial scripting, editing and production advice is substantial, though variable, for each film. The two shorts he directed during this period – The Door and Testing Democracy (2000) – also provided preliminary sketches of particular situations or places that were then elaborated upon in Blackboards and The Day I Became a Woman, respectively. (7) Nevertheless, in most cases, Mohsen deliberately avoided being on set during the actual filming process. This fidelity to the singularity of the actual filming process, and what it reveals, tells us much about how authorship in Iranian cinema might be understood.
Samira’s films present a consistently exacting and rigorous approach to situations, characters, real events, society, and the way each is viewed. This seems to be a quality which, initially, distinguishes between the work of Mohsen and Samira. As several critics such as Robin Wood have pointed out, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s career is very difficult to summarise due to its periodic shifts in tone, approach, social and even political orientation, from fundamentalism to humanism, self-consciousness to allegory. (8) Samira’s two feature films are more unified in approach, casting an almost anthropological eye over the border regions and practices of Iranian society, exploring the domestic spaces of suburban Teheran (The Apple) and the mountain passes of Iranian Kurdistan, near the border with Iraq (Blackboards).
Unlike Abbas Kiarostami, who has seldom featured substantial roles for women in his films, Mohsen has intermittently placed his female characters centre stage. (9) For example, the central figure in Gabbeh (1996) and many of the women auditioned in Salaam Cinema (1995) represent forceful, resilient, if sometimes frustrating female characters. His recent film, Kandahar (2001), features his strongest and most socially critical female figure, a character who also drives the plot forward. One can sense that the experience of working closely with the female members of his family on women-centred films has given Mohsen’s films a greater urgency in terms of their willingness to address questions and problems of gender (10). In this respect, one can perhaps see the reverse influence of Mohsen’s wife and daughter on his filmmaking practice.
In general, when discussing contemporary Iranian cinema, it is necessary to foreground the cross-fertilisation process which marks many films; whether they are films about films or other filmmakers, or works providing a different angle on a familiar region or topic. When discussing the key influences on the work of both Samira and Meshkini, it is important not to simply isolate Iranian antecedents, but recognise specific shared concerns and aesthetic preoccupations in certain non-Iranian films (for example, the work of a Georgian director Sergei Paradjanov can be seen to have influenced both Mohsen and Meshkini). It is also important to recognise the connections between Samira and Meshkini’s work and the groundbreaking films of Iranian female directors such as Forough Farrokhzad, Rakshan Bani-Etemad and Tahmineh Milani.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf has often stated that reading about films is more important than watching them, an approach to cinema education forged by necessity, one assumes. (11) Nevertheless, making a virtue of necessity inevitably highlights what is most remarkable about Iranian cinema. For example, when watching Maysam Makhmalbaf’s documentary about the making of Blackboards, one is struck by the extraordinary difficulties Samira faced in telling her story. Professional actors would not listen to her instructions, performers who could not understand what she was saying and characters who could not touch each other because of prohibitions on cross-gender physical contact in Iranian cinema (a fact which might help account for the preponderance of scenes in Iranian cinema featuring same sex characters or young children). These limitations on how and what can be shown are often used by the most interesting Iranian filmmakers to provide an aesthetic regimen and visual style. (12) The preponderance of mid to long shots, the general absence of shot-reverse shot editing patterns, the difficulty of filming in interiors, specifically domestic spaces, the impossibility of showing actual physical contact between characters, or characters gazing into or close to the camera, are used to establish both an aesthetic system and a particular perspective. It is a perspective frequently positioned outside of situations, looking at the surfaces of objects. Films and specific moments that break from this approach are thus even more striking. For example, what is so remarkable about the final shot of Kandahar is that it represents the visual perspective of the female character from behind the burka she is wearing, while we hear her voice on the soundtrack. Her subjectivity and its very real material constraints, effectively engulfs the film. Attempts to represent the visual and subjective experience of female characters are also found throughout The Apple and The Day I Became a Woman. Nevertheless, while investigating interior states and spaces, the preoccupation of these films is with the exterior appearance of characters, objects and situations, and social structures. A concern with appearances is inferred through the preoccupation with mirrors in The Apple, with consumer appliances in the final, surreal section of The Day I Became a Woman, and in the blank, ironic, sometimes utilitarian, but often pointless inscriptions we see on the blackboards in Blackboards. (13) This preoccupation with appearances in these films also gives an extraordinarily physical sense of characters mired in or moving through particular environments and contexts (and which can sometimes seem like a sustained, objectifying distance in Iranian cinema).
The Day I Became a Woman is perhaps the most audio-visually striking of all the films produced by the Makhmalbaf Film House. It was initially conceived as a short film and still bares traces of these origins. Each of its three stories, self-contained but obliquely connected, presents a female character at a different, crucial stage in her life. The first section of the film, like each of the others, bares the name of its female protagonist, declaring that it is this character’s actions, movements and ultimate fate that will be the subject of the film. Most critics suggest that it is the first story – “Hava” (the Farsi name for the ‘first’ Eve) – that most clearly relates to and illustrates the film’s title. This story’s basic subject, the short period of ‘play’ time left to a young girl about to turn nine years old (and thus become a ‘woman’), appears most clearly related to the film’s title, yet each of the three stories are equally concerned with this idea of becoming woman. The bicycle rider of the second story is also moving, potentially, from one, heavily cloistered idea of womanhood to another and the old lady of the final story shifts between land and sea, life and death. Even this final story, involving an old woman buying the consumer goods she could never afford, and perhaps never considered when she was younger, questions what it is to be a woman in Iranian, or more generally Islamic, society. Meshkini’s film presents many striking, sometimes surreal, images. But its great power is related to the way in which it pictures and often isolates characters in their environments. It focuses clearly on its central female characters, but they often get lost or obscured in the swirling, elemental geography and society that surrounds them (which is often clearly associated with masculinity). Much is made of Hava’s passage to womanhood in the first story. Yet the actual moment, when Hava’s mother places the chador over her head and leads her for the last time away from the boys that have been her friends, is an anti-climax, occurring almost out-of-frame. Each of these films is fascinating for the ways they negotiate on and off screen space. Similarly, the final moments of the second story pull away from the central character, rendering the unfolding events ambiguously and the definitive fate of its desperate female protagonist as ultimately unknowable. This ambiguity, a quality of all three of the films under discussion, is sustained in the last story, when two riders from the second story’s bicycle race disagree about this woman’s ultimate fate.
Another remarkable characteristic of these three films is the way in which they evoke a palpable, physical sense of both space and place. This aspect is most forcefully foregrounded in the middle story of The Day I Became a Woman, which focuses entirely on a woman’s bicycle race and the attempts of the male members of one woman’s family to stop her competing. Although direct point of view and shot-reverse shot patterns are rare in Iranian cinema – again partly due to the complex role played by certain censorship codes, specifically in relation to the diegetic gaze – this middle-section is marked by cutaways approximating the female rider’s visual and sensory experience of the landscape. (14) The bicycle riders are assailed on both sides by both men on horseback, some bare-chested, and the smoothly tracking camera. This represents a clash of traditional (horses, the confining, locked-off camera) and quasi-modern (bicycles, the liberating movement of the tracking shot) forms of transport and cinema. The remarkable landscape of Kish Island – a duty-free zone in the Persian Gulf that is also the setting for Secret Ballot and Mohsen’s Testing Democracy – gives the film an explicitly elemental quality. The sun, sea and the low horizon dominate, in addition to the blues, yellows and blacks of traditional female dress. This intensely physical landscape brings to mind the combination of desolate sea and barren landscapes in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) and the neo-realist seaside communities of Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1947) and Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949) (obvious neo-realist antecedents). Nevertheless, the imagery in Meshkini’s film connects most significantly with the striking representations of landscape found throughout Iranian cinema. The exploration of the varied environments, borders and contexts of Iran is one of the most dynamic characteristics of Iranian cinema. Thus, both The Apple and Blackboards also present a somewhat removed and yet intimate representation of the worlds in which the characters live and breathe. The geographic border regions of Blackboards – the kind of terrain familiar from such ‘border’ films as Delbaran (2001, Abolfazi Jalili) and A Time for Drunken Horses (2000, Bahman Ghobadi – also the lead actor in Blackboards) – are thus linked to similarly circumscribed, domestic, ‘no-go’ zones in The Apple (also found in films such as Dariush Mehrjui’s Sara ).
The Apple, Blackboards and The Day I Became a Woman also weave a complex tapestry of symbols and motifs. Some of these – such as the animals in the second part of The Day I Became a Woman – reflect directly on the characters (the protagonist’s name is Ahoo, Persian for deer, and the film cuts back-and-forth between shots of the female riders and running deer in its opening moments). Others are more enigmatic and ambiguous in both their origins and meanings. For example, the apple in The Apple is used as a symbol of temptation, experience and life, its Persian and Western meanings and associations proving equally valid. In Blackboards, the blackboards also convey a complex set of attitudes towards the relationship between experience, life and knowledge. Some commentators have pointed out the negative view taken toward learning and teaching presented by the film, but the film’s representational reality is much more complex and moving than this suggests. It is easy to make connections between the rejection of teachers and their instruments of learning in the film and Samira’s own rejection of the school system in Teheran (Mohsen partly set up the film school to offer his children a more purposeful, rounded and less sexist form of education). But this does not accurately reflect the attitude of the film. The position of the teachers in this treacherous region is ambiguous, the blackboards functioning in a number of ways in the film. They function as earth-clad camouflage, personal message board and prop, in a set of metaphorical associations between birds, helicopters and things that fall from the sky (the teachers initially appear with the blackboards strapped to their backs, waddling like distressed, flapping birds).
It is also a typical tendency of many Iranian films to explore the links between the world in and of the film, the connections between the act of filmmaking and the community itself. This is in contrast to many non-Iranian films about the cinema which emphasise the separation between these states. The work of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi is often isolated in this respect, but this is a general, if often less rigorously self-conscious, vein that runs throughout Contemporary Iranian Cinema. In this respect, Samira Makhmalbaf’s first feature film, The Apple, seems to take its lead from two films in particular: Kiarostami’s Close-Up ( focusing on a court case involving a Mohsen Makhmalbaf impersonator) and Mohsen’s A Moment of Innocence. These films blur the distinctions between cinema and life, ‘direct’ cinematic documentation and its re-enactment. Both playfully explore the interpolation of cinema into everyday Iranian life, blurring the distinction between elements that are dramatised for and by the camera. Though influenced by these two films, both of which feature performances by Mohsen as ‘himself,’ The Apple stakes out rather different territory. Whereas both Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami’s films present a mediative layer between events and their representation, The Apple is more straightforward and direct. As with Kiarostami, it is the almost immediate response to unfolding events that defines Samira’s debut feature. Within four days of the story of the 11-year imprisonment of two young girls’ in a Teherani suburb breaking in the local media, Samira started filming and re-enacting the girls’ first responses to this new, legally sanctioned freedom. The courage and spontaneity of the filmmaker’s approach is one of the film’s most remarkable qualities. We actually witness these two ‘characters” first unmediated encounters with the world outside their barred back door. Filmed in chronological order over 11 days – first on video and then film – The Apple documents subtle changes in the ways the girls speak, move and interact with other people, mostly children, in the street. Like much of the work of Mohsen, The Apple explores processes of socialisation, documenting the subtle and not so subtle nuances of class and gender division. It is also perhaps through the access granted to the film crew, and the involvement of all the major figures in the actual events (including the widely criticised father and blind mother), that one can gauge the extraordinary power and importance of cinema in modern day Iran (as can also be sensed in films like Close Up and Salaam Cinema).
This concern with social hierarchies and the relativist approach it entails, points to another key quality of Samira’s work. Whereas Meshkini’s film predominantly avoids showing us adult male characters, the women of the film mostly interacting with each other or the swarm of dark-skinned and Afghani boys that gather on the beach, both of Samira’s films spend considerable time exploring and ‘understanding’ their male characters. The punitive father of The Apple seems, at first, to be a purely negative characterisation. Gradually we begin to understand that he acts both out of love for his daughters and in line with his specific social, cultural and religious doctrines. As with the hopelessly out-of-place teachers in Blackboards, this character attains a degree of nobility and acceptance as the film progresses (and this is no mean feat). Nevertheless, The Apple and Blackboards represent two very different worlds. Whereas the final scenes of both the father and mother leaving the home in The Apple can be seen as a sign of hope and potential change, Blackboards does not really break from the bleak view it has offered throughout. It shows the elderly men that the ‘Blackboards’ and the audience have travelled with, stumbling across the border into their homeland (which they cannot even recognise due to fog and the devastation wrought by military conflict). In Blackboards – set ostensibly outside or bordering Iran – there is no time or space for thought or change. “Blackboards takes a more tragic view of culture, devalued in a brutal world where everything revolves around survival and the body.” (15)
So what is the kind of ‘house’ that Mohsen Makhmalbaf has built? Unlike Kiarostami, who often places patriarchal director-like substitutes at the centre of his films, Makhmalbaf’s approach to ‘self-representation’ has taken a more holistic and less self-centred form. Whereas Kiarostami’s films routinely present a serene or controlled vision – through increasingly complicated in films like The Wind will Carry Us (1999) – Makhmalbaf’s work is more open up to the collaborative process, allowing new voices to enter the realm of cinema (both behind and in front of the camera). Ultimately, one of things that is so remarkable about the films of Marzieh Meshkini and Samira Makhmalbaf are the ways they both connect to and depart from Mohsen’s work. They enter similar spaces and places to Mohsen’s films but transform them through a different way of viewing, composing and transforming time. In the penultimate moments of The Apple, we watch the two girls and their father walk away from the camera. They are heading off to buy watches, walking ‘freely,’ together in the street for what may be the first time. In this scene we see the potential for the opening up of space, time and gender relations, a hitherto unimaginable experience for these young women. The films of Marzieh Meshkini and Samira Makhmalbaf offer some of the same possibilities.
The Tailor, the Filmmaker and the Cop by Adrian Danks
Through Clouds: a Discussion of Kandahar and Beneath Clouds by Christos Tsiolkas
- Mohsen Makhmalbaf quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Under the Chador,” Chicago Reader (2001)
- Hamid Dabashi, Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future (London and New York: Verso, 2001) 276
- There have been a few relatively successful wife and husband filmmaking ‘teams’ such as Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy, Yulia Solntseva and Alexander Dovzhenko, Larisa Shepitko and Elem Klimov, but they seldom worked together in any substantive fashion.
- For a more detailed account of the ambitions, intentions and activities of Makhmalbaf Film House see Mohsen Makhmalbaf, “Makhmalbaf film House,”. This article is part of much larger website, run by the family, which covers all things ‘Makhmalbaf.’ Though many of its articles are in Persian, French or are poorly translated into English, it provides a fascinating insight into the all-encompassing nature of the family’s artistic practice (as well as their ability to publicise themselves).
- See, for example: Sheila Johnston, “Quietly Ruling the Roost,” Sight and Sound, 9.1, ns (January 1999): 18; John Mount, “The Apple,” Sight and Sound, 9.1, ns (January 1999): 41; and Robin Wood, “The Apple,” Cineaction, 48 (December 1998): 57-8
- See, for example, the correspondences between many of the comments made by Mohsen in his interview with Hamid Dabashi (“Once Upon a Filmmaker: Conversation with Mohsen Makhmalbaf,” Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future, 156-212) and those made by Samira in her address to the Cannes Film Festival forum in 2000: “The Digital Revolution and the Future of Cinema,” World Socialist Web Site (June 2000)
- Testing Democracy, a short made for the portmanteau feature Stories of the Island (2000), also formed the acknowledged story blueprint for Secret Ballot (Babak Payami, 2001).
- Robin Wood 58
- Kiarostami’s latest film, 10 (2002), appears to be a deliberate attempt to rethink the predominantly masculinist concerns of many of his previous films. The film, shot on digital video, consists of ten scenes focusing either on the driver or passenger of a car driving around contemporary Teheran, a number of them concentrating on female characters. For a more detailed account see Geoff Andrew, “Drive, He Said,” Sight and Sound (October 2002)
- Earlier intimations of such concerns can seemingly be found in the two banned films that Mohsen made in the early 1990s: A Time for Love (1991) and Nights of Zayandeh Rud (1991)
- For a discussion of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s preferences see Hamid Dabashi’s interview with the director in Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future, 183-9
- These consistent stylistic qualities have led many Western critics to compare specific Iranian films and filmmakers to their modernist, and even postmodernist, counterparts elsewhere. Though such an approach recognises that Iranian films are not made in a nationalist cultural vacuum, it nevertheless distorts the meaning and origins of specific aesthetic devices and choices. For a useful discussion of the perils of predominantly ‘exterior’ readings of Iranian cinema see Godfrey Cheshire, “How to Read Kiarostami,” Cineaste, 25.4 (2000): 8-15
- For a discussion of this division between the exterior and interior, social and inner self, in Iranian cinema and a more general Iranian culture see Hamid Naficy, Life and Art in New Iranian Cinema, ed. Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker (London: BFI, 1999) 48-53
- For a further discussion of the peculiarities of the gaze and the “averted look” in Iranian cinema see Naficy 54-7
- Jonathan Romney, “Blackboards,” Sight and Sound, 11.1, ns (January 2001): 42