It's different for girls
By Alexander Clarke
The Independent (London)
December 1, 2000
No! Please! Don't take that picture!" Our photographer is halted
in his tracks by a petite Iranian girl with enormous brown eyes, as he
tries to take a shot of her covered head. The film director Samira Makhmalbaf
is fussy, it seems, about how she appears in a veil.
"There are many different ways of wearing a veil," she explains
to a bemused audience of the photographer, a translator (rarely used as
her English is perfect) and me. "Look! Like this!" She dramatically
knots the veil behind her head - "This is how village women wear it
- or, like this!" She pulls the veil down low on her forehead, just
skimming her eyebrows, and ties the rest of the cloth tightly under her
chin. The conservative look. "Or like this!" The veil is pushed
back onto her head, revealing a hint of glossy black fringe, while the
ties of the scarf fall in elegant loose folds about her neck.
In just three quick shifts of a headscarf Samira has summed up the dilemma
of a nation - the struggle of modern-day Iran to balance the opposing forces
of Islamic conservatism with the new tide of liberalism and democracy ushered
in by President Khatemi.
Such visual eloquence is, however, her stock in trade. She recently
astounded the film world when, aged just 20, she became the youngest person
ever to win the coveted Jury Prize at Cannes for her film Blackboards.
Such precocious talent mingled with the fact that she is a woman who
hails from the Islamic Republic of Iran (she was born in the shadow of
the Revolution that swept the Shah from the throne) and the daughter of
the celebrated film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have made Samira film's hottest
At Cannes the paparazzi fell over themselves to photograph the slim
figure wrapped head to toe in her black chador, a poetic silhouette against
the flash frocks and big rocks of the Hollywood set. The reaction at the
Venice Film Festival was the same: "Sharon Stone upstaged by Iran's
star in a chador", crowed the British headlines. She has also been
taken up by Britain's cool youth, appearing this month in The Face and
Dazed and Confused magazines.
Samira got her first break at age 17, when she helped her father on
his film The Silence. A year later she directed her own film, the highly
acclaimed The Apple, which told the story of two teenage girls locked up
from the outside world by their doting Iranian father to preserve their
Her new film Blackboards tells the story of an itinerant group of teachers
who, with blackboards strapped to their backs, travel the remote mountainous
villages of Kurdistan during the Iran-Iraq War, in search of pupils to
The Apple and Blackboards take place in real time. There is no script
- filming is done of events as they occur. Samira uses only the "real"
protagonists of her stories, not actors. This documentary style is enhanced
by sudden moments of strikingly surreal imagery, such as the film's opening
scene where the blackboards tied to the teachers' backs flap like giant
crows' wings in the wind.
I ask if surrealism is used to convey hidden political or feminist messages
to an audience in a country not well known for its democratic system of
government. "No. My films are not about specific issues. That is far
too simplistic. Blackboards is not about the Iran-Iraq War; it is a metaphor
for war everywhere. Or the situation of the girls in The Apple - I'm not
saying it was caused by Islam. It was caused by many different things,
by the minds of the people, by the culture, by unwritten laws."
Has she ever been the victim of such unwritten laws in Iran? "Yes,
when I'm filming, it can be difficult as men think they are superior to
women. The hardest thing is when men try to omit you, but in a diplomatic
way. They never shout 'get out!' - they do it in a quiet way."
So how did she manage to make two films in Iran? "I live in a house
with an open-minded father. There is not that much difference in the way
me and my brother are treated. But there is in my friends' house and so
they never see themselves as an 'author'. They see a kind of life for themselves
to be a wife, or to be like this or to be like that. But in my house it
was never like that." She thinks, and then adds: "The other important
thing is self-confidence - if you don't believe in yourself and you have
to deal with all these men, then that's no good."
Has her self-confidence equipped her for dealing with the rigours of
censorship in Iran? "I don't think censorship is all bad. In some
ways it's good, because it means we aren't forced, like in Hollywood, to
fill our films with sex and violence. Most Hollywood films are superficial
and just about entertainment."
She notes that Hollywood's influence is growing: "We have celebrities
in Iran now". But despite their popularity, Samira refused to use
celebrities in Blackboards. "I wanted to use the people of Kurdistan.
They have lived in those mountains for generations and the location is
in their faces. They give a metaphysical energy to my film." So would
she advocate the banning of satellite dishes beaming commercial Western
films into Iran? "Oh no. If you have no communication you cannot be
a complete human being. For example, in The Apple it's a situation of some
humans who can't communicate. They are living in a very closed place and
you see how retarded they have become."
Samira believes such a repressive situation would be untenable in present-
day Iran: "Over half the Iranian population is under 20 years old.
These young people have so much energ and so many desires. It will be impossible
to hold these back." Last year there was a spate of student demonstrations
in Tehran. Speaking of the vibrancy of that period, Samira smiles. "Iranian
people are artists and we know how much colour helps people express themselves
and makes them feel happier. It's a kind of freedom which is good. I feel
great. It's the beginning of democracy."
'Blackboards' is being screened on 5 December at the International Film
Festival of Wales and is on general release in the UK from 29 December