Shining rotten apple
March 3, 1999
Against her shock of black hair, the black scarf was visible only on close scrutiny, but those spectacular dark, doleful eyes marked her unmistakably as Iranian. But what was an Iranian woman doing here?
Such was my first encounter with Samira Makhmalbaf in the most unlikely of forums: an American fashion magazine. I count at least three other such appearances this year before her more predictable appearance in The New York Times. No doubt about it, Samira Makhmalbaf cuts a fascinating figure, but her reception in the West, especially by women and feminist sympathizers, has continued to perplex me long after that first encounter.
A precocious talent still in her teens, Makhmalbaf, daughter of a famed Iranian filmmaker, awed them at the Cannes Film Festival with her entry of "The Apple." The artistic merits of the film notwithstanding, her very presence there seemed a paradox. Makhmalbaf distilled the confusion the best: Was Iran a country that imprisoned girls in their homes or a country that set them free to make films of international repute?
Unlike other contemporary Iranian films dealing with social injustice, "The Apple" operates not only on the level of allegory, but on the level of fact. Whatever the potential powers of allegory, fact is a much more dangerous terrain to survey artistically, not least of all because of the very different expectations and responses of the audience to factual material. It had been easy for me, like most Iranians, to dismiss a film like "Not Without My Daughter." But a film about the subjugation of women from the perspective of an eighteen-year old Iranian woman? And a true story, at that! An infinitely more complicated viewing experience.
"The Apple" depicts a true story of abuse, made truer still by Makhmalbaf's use of the actual persons involved in the case. But it depicts also a sensational story, and sensational stories are, whatever their cultural contexts, necessarily exaggerated versions of reality. Would an American audience appreciate that fact? When I went to see the film at its New York premiere last week, it was with a mix of pride and fear -- pride at this Iranian girl's singular accomplishment, fear at how her story would be received by an American audience. Clearly, I had made an emotional investment in this film, more than any other Iranian film I have seen abroad.
In the end, it was a painful hour and a half for me in that theater. It is a horror story in the way that only reality can be horrible. Two twin daughters are locked in their home from birth. Their growth is retarded in innumerable ways. They can barely speak. They even walk awkwardly. They have possibly not been bathed in years.
Makhmalbaf is exacting, indicting in her telling of this story. Her camera lingers at length over this abnormally infantile pair of twin girls. She fixes her gaze on their pained attempts at communication. And she forces us to see them.
I am convinced that "The Apple" is a story that the West has been waiting for Iran tell about itself. To this young director's infinite credit, it is much more than this.
Makhmalbaf has an eye for cruelty, but she has an eye, too, for the tenacity of the human soul, its delight in beauty even when mercilessly fettered. The girls play a game of fingerprinting on the walls, delighting in their imprints. Straining against their bars, they water a plant in the courtyard and watch it grow. The film has many such moments of surprising delight and tenderness.
Makhmalbaf also has an eye for complexity. While she never exactly exonerates the girls' father, she gives him a humanizing complexity by foregrounding his poverty, poor education, and his undeniable love for his daughters. In a heart-rending interlude, the father, squatting on a mean rug, sings to God about his sufferings. By the time tears come to his eyes at the shame brought on him by the widespread media coverage of the story, he is hardly a one-dimensionally demonized figure of patriarchal oppression.
With the exception of the father and a few shots of male reporters early on, this is a cinematic landscape populated entirely by women. Significantly, it is women who petition for the girls' release, and it is a woman social worker who visits the girls' house repeatedly and who contrives an ingenious plot for their liberation. But while women act as agents of change, others forcefully defend tradition. The girls' blind mother, shrouded from head to foot and murmuring obscenities, insists to the last minute of the film that the bars of her house not be cut.
As much as Makhmalbaf has us thrill in the girls' first forays into the wider world, she complicates their liberation as much as she complicates their imprisonment. The first tools with which they are meant to place themselves in a greater reality are combs and mirrors, and they are thus symbolically initiated into the demands of public female identity. Later, their first friends initiate them into a world of want, and consumerism. When the father at last ventures out with his daughters, it is to satisfy their newly acquired greed for watches.
"The Apple" was a film I did not want to see, and therefore needed to see. Makhmalbaf horrified me, to be sure, but she surprised me even more. I suspect I was not the only one.