Is there a more fascinating family in the film world these days than the Iranian Makhmalbaf family? They've been known to sell their house and car to finance a film, buy them back when they sell the film, and start all over again the moment the next project comes up. And there's always another project. There are five members of the family and all of them have made at least one film and taken on duties in the production of the other family members' films.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, now in his mid-forties, grew up in poverty in Tehran, working odd jobs to support his single mother (which he started doing when he was merely eight). He was active in the Islamic underground resistance during the reign of the Shah, was shot, arrested and thrown in jail, and that would have been that if it weren't for the revolution of 1979. He has since written novels, short stories and screenplays, has worked on countless productions with other filmmakers and written and directed more than 20 of his own.
In one of them, The Cyclist (1987), a favorite of friend and admirer Werner Herzog, he cast his daughter, Samira, who was only seven at the time. A few years later, Mohsen founded a private school for his three children and a few of their friends; they'd learn in an atmosphere buzzing with constant creativity. When Samira was 17, she made her own first film, The Apple (1997). She'd heard and seen reports on the Naderi family and managed to involve them in the retelling of their own story. The father had kept his two daughters behind bars in his house all their lives, nearly a dozen years. And yet, as she stresses in the following interview, Samira Makhmalbaf approached what sounds like an utter nightmare without any prejudices. She went to learn first, then shoot, often writing a scene, with help from her father, a day or two before it was shot.
Two years later, she would become the youngest director ever to have a film in competition at Cannes. The Blackboard (1999), shot in harrowing conditions in Iranian Kurdistan near the Iraqi border, where the cast and crew were in constant danger of setting off land mines, tells the story of teachers who use the blackboards they carry with them to help various refugees. A teacher is also at the center of the short film she contributed to the compilation 11' 9" 01, and in her most recent film, At Five in the Afternoon, it's a teacher again who initiates the story by asking the girls in her class (and of course, this is an all-female class) what they'd like to do for a living. Noqreh wants to be president.
Samira Makhmalbaf has won several awards, but she's been a particular favorite at Cannes, where Nina Rehfeld had a chance to talk with her this year - before anyone knew Samira would win the Jury Prize a second time for Afternoon (she won the first time for The Blackboard). Now, just three months later, her younger sister, Hana, who served as assistant director on The Apple, is showing Joy of Madness, about the making of Afternoon at the Venice Film Festival. Because she's only 15, Hana was almost refused accreditation, but that's since been cleared up.
For years, Iranian cinema has attracted little attention in the US except among cinephiles, and even many of them knew one name only, Abbas Kiarostami. Those familiar with Kiarostami's work may have been first introduced to the Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his family by Close-Up, the strange tale of a Makhmalbaf impostor. Then came 9-11. As it happens, Makhmalbaf had just made Kandahar, which would have been consigned to the same relative obscurity if it hadn't been set in Afghanistan. Suddenly, there was a flurry of interest in that corner of the world and the film introduced the curious to the ouevre of a unique filmmaker - and now, via family ties, to a whole new generation of filmmakers.
Samira Makhmalbaf and her father.
Is this the first film to have been made in Afghanistan after the bombing?
Yes, this was the first. But after this one, an Afghan filmmaker, Siddik Barmaq, made a film. He said my movie is about the present situation and his movie is about the Taliban. So there have been two new movies to come from Afghanistan.
Osama. But he had a problem to come. Because of the name. They didn't let it come at the beginning, for a long time. Then they said the movie would be here but the director wouldn't be here because he couldn't get a visa. But he's here now.
How did you decide to tell a story about a woman in Afghanistan caught between modern ideas and the Taliban?
It's a long story. [laughs] I have to say, I started learning about Afghanistan when I was very young. I was with people who had immigrated from Afghanistan, so I started to get to know them. I went to Pakistan, I went to the border with Afghanistan. It's a sympathetic topic for me. We speak the same language, we're neighbors. So many immigrate to Iran.
Then my father made Kandahar and it was here in Cannes and everybody asked him, "Why did you make a film about such an unimportant subject? Such a forgotten country?" And then September 11 happened and all the mass media started to talk about Afghanistan. But they were just saying that America, like a Rambo, went off to Afghanistan and rescued people from the hands of the Taliban, so from now on, no more problems. No more fascism, it's a democracy. And you know, Kandahar tried to give information about the country and about the tragedy which was forgotten. I, too, wanted to correct the wrong information about Afghanistan.
I didn't know what was happening in Afghanistan. I had a lot of questions. I wanted to go there and ask these questions and to see for myself without judgment. Without putting the blame on the group called the Taliban. I wanted to see the reality. I wanted to see behind the mystery of that part of the world. I saw the hidden war between the past generation and the present generation. And the great distance between the situation for men and for women.
I saw so many people coming back from Iran and Pakistan. And they had high hopes for their country, but they were living in the ruins left from the time of war, and I thought, if I'm going to make a movie about life in Afghanistan, these people have to be in the movie. So all of the people are from Afghanistan.
The idea of the film also had to come from the reality there. Ordinary people. So, for example, the father, this character: The first day I was in Kabul, there was this old man who, when he saw me and saw that I had no burka, he turned to the wall and closed his eyes. So I felt a real sympathy for him. He believes in the Taliban. It doesn't have any force nowadays, but deeply, his faith - before, he had power and would put women under the burka, but now, he doesn't have power, and he will suffer from this loss, but he will go on closing his eyes.
And so I thought: I have to talk about this is a generation of Afghans. You see, in the movie, the father is a supporter of the Taliban. But you can't hate him. You don't think that he's a selfish man or that he's a male chauvinist, and in fact, you can imagine that a woman would believe as he does because of that culture. So I found the desire of this girl being in the present, you know, it might seem a little naive...
It's very charming.
Yes. It might be a little naive that she would want to be president with that kind of father.
But it also makes a sort of sense, that naiveté.
But you know, I saw it in reality. In Kabul, I saw women under the burka. In the streets, most of them wore the burka. More than 95 percent. I started to talk to them and I listened. They had something to express. Some feelings, desires, some hope. Some of them also spoke English, and I asked them where they learned English. I wanted to cry. I thought, nobody knows that under this burka is a live person, a woman with desires and dreams. I went to a school and the same thing that happens in the movie happened in reality. I asked the girls, "Is there anybody here who wants to become a doctor or a teacher?" And then I said, "Let's talk about the idea of becoming president." Let's see if they believe that a woman can be president. It seems that they don't think that men are superior. But nobody accepted the idea. They laughed and said, "No way."
But then, within an hour, even less, most of the class wanted to be president. I had a very powerful girl for the lead role, but then I went to Iran, and when I came back, she wouldn't do it. She begged me, "No, my parents..." So, I went through all the schools, looking for the right girl. They were many, but they were afraid, all of them under the burka. So people told me, go to Iran and bring a woman back. You won't find her here. But I'm making a movie about an Afghan woman! How can I use a woman from Iran?
You feel really sorry for the women under the burka. On the other hand, in Europe and in America, everyone feels sorry for Iranian women because they wear a head covering.
I have to say that this is not only a story about Afghanistan. It can be the story about Iranian people, too, and Iranian culture. So many eastern cultures. I could also talk about some things easier in Afghanistan whereas it would be harder in Iran. So, it's the same story. We are all suffering a little bit from the same culture.
When you were in the school asking the girls if they wanted to be president, what did you do to convince them?
I started a conversation. I tried to help some of them who had a little bit of a reason to say no to explain their reasons. And then it became a conversation, and soon, I introduced the idea that if they were president - what would they do? That's the sort of conversation it became. I tried to give them a little bit of energy and confidence, to say, Ok, you've been under this burka for years. Don't you think that if a woman were president, she might understand you better? They agreed, and so, I said, "Ok, let's talk about it."
They started talking and came up with good reasons [for a female president]. They were very powerful and I couldn't imagine these women under the burka having such powerful ideas. I wanted to show these women, so the woman in this movie is really powerful. She is a president in the movie. She doesn't have any power but she feels responsibility. She doesn't have any place, but she invites everyone - she's always bringing water and she behaves like a president. But I couldn't make a "happy end" movie. It would be a lie. Because of the situation now. Too many problems. You can't have democracy overnight.
Where do you have your self-confidence from? Because you're such a vivid person. Have you always been like that? Does it come from your family, from your father?
I live in two different conditions. I live in a very male-dominated culture, very closed-minded, but at the same time, I was brought up in a house where there was no difference between me and my brother. My father cares about the situation of women. It also came from my father that I would see the difference between our school and our house. And sometimes, people ask me - I love it, when they ask this - "What kind of women are Iranian women?" Especially after Apple. "Who are these women, they ask: These two girls, in prison for eleven years, or an 18-year-old woman making a movie?"
But we have both of these kinds of women in Iran. It's a contrast. We have both. Because there are so many limitations and these limitations can make you weak, but you also want to say so many things, and when you have a little bit of, let's say, opportunity and freedom, you just burst, you want to talk! And these women in Afghanistan are like this. In some cases, I can go to an Iranian school and find this kind of girl, too, because they are under pressure. It's like a spring. You press down your hand, but take it away and it springs high. You go deeper, think more, try not to be superficial. I think it's also true that because I had a better situation, a better opportunity, compared to other women, that that's why I always feel a responsibility for these women. I think I have to do something.
Do you often find people curious about your age? Or for that matter, your nationality, your profession, your age...
And being a woman! Many ask if I could make a film just because my father was a filmmaker. If I were a man, it would be easier. Even in Europe, that's true. And the other thing is that I'm young. If I was 40, they wouldn't ask about it. The thing is, I have experience. I was born into a family where my father was all the time talking about cinema, and my family was most of the time on location or in the editing room. From the time I was a child, I would see my father's imagination at work. The people all around me might be suffering and I would see their pain in the movie.
Then I left school when I was 14. My father taught me. He wanted to teach around a hundred young people but the government didn't let him. So it was just me and some of my friends. The industry of cinema, the technique of cinema is not something so special that no one can learn it. At three years old, maybe before, I was always around a camera. If cinema is a way of looking at life, who says that only old people can make films? Or that only men can see life through the eyes of the cinema? Who says such a thing? They say, "You are young," so I would have to be old. "You are a woman," so I would have to be a man. "You're from Iran," so I would have to be from somewhere else. And some people told me, "You're very small." So I would have to be a fat old man to make a movie!
You know, it's just a way of looking at life. Why is it always men talking about women? Or old people talking about young people? I'm in this situation.
Can you explain why it almost seems that women are feared by the men under the Taliban system and under other religious systems? The Christians had this as well a couple of centuries ago.
I have this question running through my movies. That's why I had to go to the father in Apple with this question. Your first idea is to hate this father, but I was always thinking: I have my father, a father with love. So how did this happen? So I went to him and found that he's not a bad guy. He has his own feelings, his religion. Through my movie, I try to talk about this. You can see what he believes.
But why do think that, all over the world, men suppress women?
Is it like that here, too?
Sure, everywhere. Here, it's just much more subtle.
You're right. And Apple can also be a symbol for the world. But I don't know. I don't know. That's my question, too.
Maybe they're afraid.
[laughs] Maybe, I don't know.
What's your own situation in Iran - are you an exception?
My situation isn't normal in Iran, but it's getting better. So many Iranian women would like to become filmmakers. They try to find work in some way in the cinema. It's a kind of breaking of the cliché.
Are you a rebel?
What do you mean, "rebel"?
In your heart?
In my heart, I never go through with anything I don't love. I find a subject I love and I go through with it. And the characters in my movie, I can't hate them. Or I can't make the movie.
But you like to fight.
To fight against what?
Against injustice. Let's take this woman's situation, for example.
It's different. If you use the word "fight" for what I'm doing and for what the American government is doing, it's not good. I went to Afghanistan and just started to look at everything and started to love this father and this daughter and to really look at everybody's situation. The best thing I've learned from my father is not to judge but to love humanity. The most important thing that caused me to love the cinema is that I would always see the love of humanity through my father's movies. So, no. If I find a character and I don't love this character, I can't make the movie. So I don't try to fight. I try to fight against - no, maybe if you say "fight," it's not a good word.
I mean "fight" in a positive way, though.
I try to do my best to see things through. If I love a subject, I can go through any kind of problem for it.
Could you imagine working in America? Hollywood?
[laughs] Or another culture. Like France. [sighs] You know, my father believes if we can have Doctors Without Borders, why can't we have Filmmakers Without Borders? And I have to say, I'm not really thinking about making a movie in, say, France. I don't know the culture of France. But I also don't want to make a border for myself. I come from a culture which is making borders for me all the time. But I'm a human. Wherever I go to make a movie, the first thing is not to judge. I come to see things. I don't just come with a script and hand it somebody and say, "Ok, you do that." I have to see things, how they are. To see life and then make the movie.
When you see those pictures of Afghanistan destroyed, you now think immediately of Iraq. Here's another country that's being destroyed, another country in which the Shiites are trying to assume power. Would it also be interesting to you to make a film about Iraq?
I have to say that I know Afghanistan much better. I have very strong feelings about it; there's something very close to me about Afghanistan. It's also not necessary to go everywhere where the war is and make a movie there. It can be anywhere. It can be the story of a certain human in a certain situation. For example, I made Blackboard about a refugee. It's the story of any human who's a refugee anywhere.
What's your next project?
It's a very, very small subject, it's like a seed, but I love it. And I don't know what will happen with it, nobody knows. I don't know if it will grow or die or what. I will see. I'm not a factory, too, you know, always making movies. Just because it's my job. I have to love the story. It's the way I express myself, the way I do something as a human. If my heart is in this, I will make this movie.