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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 new property.

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 honour.

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 teach.

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


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