Sunday, August 12, 2007

makhmalbaf moxy

I think Iranian women are like freshwater springs: the more pressure applied, the more force they show once they are freed. Samira Makhmalbaf

When you've been around the film festival for as many years as I have (this is my 17th festival), you begin to experience a kind of strange but exciting deja-vu of discovery. I remember when Samira Makhmalbaf, the elder daughter of Iranian master filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf arrived at TIFF with her debut film The Apple. She had been 17, when she shot it, 18 when it was brought to Cannes. The documentary-drama chronicled the attempts of some village people to pressure an average Iranian man to let his two daughters out of forced captivity in their home. The girls, who were 11, had never been outside - at all - because of the man's religious fear that they might shame themselves and/or him. Through Samira's film (and with the help of Iranian social workers), their cocoon is finally burst. The closing image I remember vividly: the girls laughing and eating apples outside the house.

No two young women could be more different from the housebound girls of The Apple than sisters Samira and Hana Makhmalbaf, despite a shared country and society, proving just how providential birthright is. As children, the young filmmakers played on the sets of their father's films and hung around his film school. Their step-mother, Marzieh Mezkini, who once was a student of their father's, made films on which they worked. The combined talent here cannot be calculated. But the real story is the emergence of a female family aesthetic. These bright, amazing women are capturing, with incredibly moving sensitivity, the private, untold stories of very real Iranian women.

Enter Hana Makhmalbaf. The newest comer of the family is now 17 herself, the age her big sister was when her first feature debuted. TIFF announced this week Hana Makhmalbaf's film Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame as headlining a list of new Visions programming. But this is actually Hana's second feature. Her first film was a documentary on the making of her sister's movie, At Five In the Afternoon, which premiered at TIFF '05. In the newly liberated Afghanistan, women faced new opportunities, and also very old minds and hearts. The documentary looked at the consequences of even making a film about the post-Taliban era. Heady stuff for a 14 year old, as she then was. Prior to that, she shot the stills for Marzieh Mezkini's The Day I Became A Woman, which observed the last day of free play in the life of a little girl, before she becomes housebound herself on her 9th birthday. (Islam marks nine as the age of maturity for girls.) She also worked as second unit director for Meshkini's brilliantly observed Stray Dogs (also TIFF'05).

On the virtue of sheer pedigree, this latest Makhmalbaf screening will be a top seed for me. I am so used to thinking of Samira as the young upstart. Her impressive debut was followed by the by-far-best short in the 11'09"01 collection which appeared at TIFF'02. In her nine limited minutes, Samira followed a young woman Afghan teacher as she attempted to explain to her small charges the collapse of the World Trade center. The children understood terrorism; they understood bomb. What they didn't get was 'tower'. The teacher took them round their small village, pointing to monuments and asking the children to imagine something hundreds of times higher. They are never able to.

Imagination. Integrity. Inspiration. The strength and vision of this family of women filmmakers stands out on the skyline of Iranian cinema like a beacon for the generations of women who are coming of age in the middle east. Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame promises to live up to expectation. This drama follows a six year old girl and her family who live in the wreckage of a Buddha destroyed by the Taliban. The world around the girl is inhabited by boys who imitate the violence they have seen.

If you have missed the work of Samira and Hana Makhmalbaf and Marzieh Meshkini, start now. Ten years from now, no doubt, you will be the 'old timer' watching the debut of yet another clanswoman, and remembering nostalgically when you caught Hana Makhmalbaf's North American debut at TIFF'07. Hana dreaming indeed!
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