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At the time of the 2004 UK cinema release of Samira Makhmalbaf’s third feature Panj é asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003), an introduction to an article on the Makhmalbaf family titled “Iranian House Style” read: “Here come the Makhmalbafs. Are they geniuses or is it down to dad, asks Hannah McGill.”.1 Filmmaking families are nothing new, of course, with the Coppolas being a high profile example. Superficially, Samira could be compared to Sofia Coppola: both emerged as filmmakers within a few years of one another, and their debut features – Sofia with The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Samira with Sib (The Apple, 1998) – dealt with girls confined at home by their strict parents. However, both women’s directing debuts – and subsequent work – demonstrate that their fathers do not overshadow them, and that Sofia and Samira are distinct voices in cinema.

The Apple focuses on the Naderi family – an elderly father living in Tehran with his two 12-year-old twin daughters, Massoumeh and Zahra, and his blind wife (all playing themselves). The father has essentially imprisoned his two young daughters in the family home for years and the neighbours bring this situation to the attention of the welfare department, who take the children into care. However, the welfare department later returns the daughters to the father and his wife, who are told they must not lock up the children again. Yet the father does confine his children once more and when a social worker (Azizeh Mohamadi) visits to find the daughters imprisoned again, she lets them out of the house and locks the father inside. While the father is shut indoors (his only way out is by sawing through the bars of the door or breaking the lock), his daughters are free to explore the world outside.

Inevitably in a film about a father and his daughters, the question arose of how The Apple might parallel Samira’s life with her father, Moshen Makhmalbaf. In an interview, Sheila Johnston speculated that Samira may have been drawn to “the theme of daughters attempting to assert their independence of their father” and Samira confirmed this: “I think I was drawn to the story because it’s about the relationship between father and daughters. And we are trying to resolve that relationship too, because we are father and daughter as well.”.2 Samira told of how she came across the story for the film: 

I saw a report about the family on television on Wednesday night and the following Sunday I was shooting. A very short part of my film’s opening is taken from that television programme and after that there’s a brief section shot by us on video, because the camera wasn’t ready. The rest is on 35mm.3 

Samira then summarised the filming: 

We shot in chronological order, with everyone – social workers, the family, the neighbour – playing themselves except for the two little girls who befriend the twins, who are my cousins, and the man selling watches, who is my grandfather. I didn’t have a script: I didn’t want to write one before I got to know the family.4

The resulting film is a potent mixture of documentary and drama, taking a fascinating but grim situation and crafting an absorbing mix of reality and storytelling that is sad yet uplifting. The visual change from video to 35mm at the start – notwithstanding the abstract series of opening shots (such as the parents standing still and viewed from behind and an arm reaching out to water a plant) and the title sequence (a petition written to the welfare department that includes filmmaker credits) – seems to signal a transition from a television news report to a more poetic perspective, moving from reportage to cinema. The Apple uses true events as a starting point and gently probes deeper to show how the two daughters, the father, and the wife feel and think. While the father and his wife can communicate their feelings in speech, the daughters do not possess such skills and so the spectator simply observes them, inferring what they can about the daughters from their actions.

While the neighbours see the father’s actions as cruel, a conversation between the father and the social worker reveals that he adheres to a strict outlook, protecting his daughters from men and, by extension, the perceived dangers of the outside world. It may have been tempting to simply demonise the father, but while the film does not excuse his behaviour, Samira attempted to understand him: 

I saw this report about the girls on TV, and I was thinking, ‘What makes a father put his daughters in jail? What? What?’ It was so sad for me, and I felt sympathy, maybe because I was a girl, I was Iranian, I was from that culture. So I was thinking, ‘It could be me.’ And I couldn’t get rid of it. When I don’t know how to get rid of a hard thing, I go through it, and I wanted to go through it; I wanted to do something.5 

Asked by Johnston whether persuading the parents to participate in the film was a challenge, Samira answered: 

The person whose permission I had to get was the father, so I went to the welfare centre on the first day to see him. I didn’t ask him anything, I just listened to him. Maybe I was the only person to do that – everyone else was condemning him. Soon he started to trust me and took me to his house. I lived there while we were shooting.6 

As Samira also explained to SF Said: 

So I went to see the father. Not to judge him; I went to see who he was. And I saw: he loves his children! What makes him do what he does is what he believes; he’s not a selfish man or a cruel man.7 

John Mount notes Samira’s generosity of spirit that is evident in the finished film: “Makhmalbaf is scrupulously non-judgemental and takes a carefully liberal line that skirts explicit criticism of any concerned parties.”8

Although the daughters are freed from the confines of their home by the social worker, they are ill-equipped to deal with the situation in which they suddenly find themselves. As Mount notes, “The sight of the twins stumbling from their courtyard like liberated battery hens, struggling to comprehend and communicate with the outside world, is especially resonant.”.9 The daughters do not have the social skills to navigate in what must be, for them, a bewildering world, as demonstrated in their initially awkward interactions with a boy selling ice cream and their tense playtime with two girls at first. While the daughters’ introduction to the neighbourhood seems overwhelming to them, earlier the film showed that the twins were curious about life beyond the house before their liberation, expressing themselves by putting their handprints on a wall in the house and watering a plant they can barely reach outside. 

Another key moment in The Apple is when the social worker gives each daughter a mirror, along with a comb to share, before she frees them. Why include the mirrors? Samira simply stated: “Everybody uses mirrors, but women more than men. Women look in the mirror and find themselves.”10 Communication was as key to the filmmaking process as it was in the story of the film. As Samira described of her work with Massoumeh and Zahra: 

It was very hard to communicate with them. They didn’t know how to speak at all. They looked at me as if I was a chair, not a human being. And I thought, ‘How can I communicate with them?’ Then I thought, ‘I have to love them. If you love, it will come to you.’ So I went to them, and I saw how important communication is for being a complete human being. These two girls, in eleven days, they changed a lot; you see it in the movie. From the beginning to the end, it was eleven days.11

What of the apple in The Apple? A boy uses the fruit to tempt the twins (and later the mother) by sitting at a window above a street and dangling an apple just out of reach. Writing in early 1999, Ray Privett viewed the role of the apple in the context of “…a crucial moment in relations between the United States and the Islamic countries of the Middle East…”12 and made the following analysis: 

“…in Judaic-Christian-Islamic mythology, The Apple is the item associated with the power which the serpent brings to Adam in the garden of Eden, and, in Islamic-Western relations, various countries are regularly characterized as varieties of Satan who dangle their power and products before others. And, since this boy who dangles The Apple leads the girls to other products associated with the West, he appears like the serpent who gives apples to Eve, especially in leading the girls to the Western-style market.13 

Privett’s interpretation reads much into the presence and use of the apple in the film, but while it can be seen in this way, Samria explains that the reason behind its inclusion turned out to be more prosaic: 

The apple in Iranian poetry is the symbol of life and knowledge, as in the biblical story of Adam and Eve – we have a similar story in the Koran. But I found this element in the children’s own world, I didn’t just invent it. Everyone was so worried about their future, but when I looked at them they were just eating apples and enjoying life. So I decided to keep the apples in the narrative to the end.14 

While the apple can be interpreted as a symbol of temptation, the film does not present it as an object that precipitates a fall from grace; instead, as Mount observes, “…the apple the twins cherish hints at sustenance and the getting of wisdom.”15

Looking past the culturally specific elements of The Apple, the closest equivalent to the film might be Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1975). The Maysles brothers’ documentary is a fascinating forebear and parallel to Samira’s film. Contrast the two confined daughters in The Apple (young, poor, disadvantaged, uneducated, and living in Iran), with the reclusive mother and daughter in Grey Gardens (living on the titular estate in America, being older, wealthier, privileged, and educated). Both films could not be more different, yet their subject is universal – two sets of women restricted to their homes, whether forced or by choice. Privett acknowledges the universality of The Apple: “It is an example of what art can do at its best: help us understand where other people are coming from, and help us solve problems, whatever they are and whoever we are, whether the distance between us is a gate, a wall, a religion, a language, thousands of miles, or more.”16 

At the conclusion of J. Hoberman’s review praising The Apple, he asked: “Have Massoumeh and Zahra truly been set free? Or will they be shut in again two years hence?”17 In a piece of unexpected foresight, Hoberman’s question was answered by an article that revisited the twins two years later: “The girls have attended school, they can now talk, read and write, and both have proved to be excellent students in their class.”.18 In addition, Samira gave an update circa 2003, noting that the daughters were still in school.19 Looking back on The Apple over 25 years after its production, the film stands as a fascinating document of an extraordinary situation, a moving story of two young women discovering the world, and a striking debut of a talented filmmaker who handles the material, and the participants, with style and grace.20

The Apple/Sib (1997 Iran/France 86 mins)

Prod Co: MK2 Productions & Makhmalbaf Productions Scr & Ed: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Prod: Iraj Sarbaz Dir: Samira Makhmalbaf Phot: Ebrahim Ghafouri

Cast: Massoumeh Naderi, Zahra Naderi, Ghorban Ali Naderi, Azizeh Mohamadi

Endnotes

  1. Hannah McGill, “Iranian House Style,” Sight and Sound, Vol. 14, No. 4 (April 2004): p. 32.
  2. Sheila Johnston and Hadani Ditmars, “Quietly Ruling the Roost,” Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 1 (January 1999): p. 20.
  3. Johnston and Ditmars, p. 18.
  4. Johnston and Ditmars, p. 18.
  5. S F Said, “‘This Girl Behaves against It’: An Interview with Samira Makhmalbaf” in There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond, Corinn Columpar and Sophie Mayer, eds. (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2009), p. 165. The introduction notes that the interview was conducted when At Five in the Afternoon received the Jury’s Special Award at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered” (p. 165), which was in 2003.
  6. Johnston and Ditmars, p. 18.
  7. S F Said, pp. 165-166.
  8. John Mount, “Film Reviews: The Apple/Sib/La Pomme,” Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 1 (January 1999): p. 41.
  9. Mount, p. 41.
  10. Johnston and Ditmars, pp. 18 & 20.
  11. S F Said, p. 166.
  12. Ray Privett, “Analysis: Letter From New York: The Apple and a Youssef Chahine Retrospective,” Film International, Vol. 6, No. 4, Issue 24 (Spring 1999): p. 62.
  13. Privett, p. 63.
  14. Johnston and Ditmars, p. 18.
  15. Mount, p. 41.
  16. Privett, p. 63.
  17. J. Hoberman, “Global Village People,” The Village Voice, 16 February 1999. https://www.villagevoice.com/global-village-people/
  18. Omid Najvan, “The Twin Sisters in Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple: Two Years Later,” Film International, Vol. 7, Nos. 2/3 Autumn 1999, pp. 102-103. Issue 26 & 27. This article gives more details on the production of The Apple and on the lives of the daughters after the film was released.
  19. S F Said, p. 166. Samira said this about the daughters in 2003: “They are not exactly like other people, but let’s say 95 percent, because they didn’t have mental problems, nothing wrong physically. So they changed a lot, very very fast, and they lived with another family, because their father couldn’t take care of them, and their mother died very soon after. Now they go to school and they grow up.”
  20. For more details on The Apple, Samira and the Makhmalbaf family, see the Makhmalbaf Family Official Website: Makhmalbaf Film House.

About The Author

Martyn Bamber has previously written for Senses of Cinema and is a contributor to the book: Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.

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