Director: Samira Makhmalbaf
Tehran, the late 1990s. Concerned neighbours write to the city welfare department about two parents, an unemployed father and a blind mother, who keep their twin 12 year old daughters locked up. They are never allowed out, can’t speak and haven’t bathed in years. A welfare officer visits; the parents fear they will harm the children. The children are interviewed and find it difficult to communicate and behave. The welfare officer seeks to integrate the children into society.
The children are returned to their parents on the condition that they look after them properly. The father, a religiously zealous man, tells a neighbour that he has been slandered in the press; that he never chained his children up and that God won’t forgive them for interfering. When the welfare officer returns, the father is not home and the children are still locked up. With a neighbour’s help, she releases the children. When the father returns, the officer encourages the children to play outside and make friends. The officer locks the parents inside their home as punishment. The children make friends with two neighbourhood girls and walk around the city. When they return, they release their parents. The father takes the children to buy a watch, whilst the mother wonders where they all are.
“A girl is like a flower. If the Sun shines on her, she will fade”
The daughter of the much admired post-revolutionary director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira was just seventeen when she directed her debut feature, ‘The Apple’, having already served an extensive apprenticeship. Although her father, co-scripted and edited the film, it’s still an astonishing debut feature by any standards, not just when you bear in mind the age of the director.
Much like several films of the era; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ‘A Moment of Innocence’ and Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close Up’, to name two examples, ‘The Apple’ is a fascinating combination of documentary and fiction techniques. Makhmalbaf has taken a real life incident that received widespread press coverage and immediately recreated it when the personnel involved, just as had been the case in the two aforementioned examples. It’s probable that Makhmalbaf has used a degree of dramatic license, but largely she’s faithful to the actual incident and respectful to those involved, providing them the opportunities to state their case and do themselves justice. As this is a re-enactment staged for the camera, there’s a constant blur between fact and fiction, between what’s genuine and what’s an act, although given the fact that Makhmalbaf uses the real parents and children involved, you’d have to assume that they’re being completely honest, rather than trying to give a false and better impression of themselves.
An incident that caused a scandal in the press, Makhmalbaf is sufficiently canny to use it to make numerous observations about Iranian society. The neglect and mistreatment of these two young girls acts as a metaphor for the female experience in a historically patriarchal state. The father, unemployed with a blind wife, uses religious as his comfort, but also his justification for how he looks after his children. Although the religious quotation that starts this review might sound well-meaning, it actually encourages the subjugation of women. He refuses to allow his daughters to roam the streets in case anyone (read: boys) touches them, which would result in them being dishonoured.
Honour is a recurring theme throughout ‘The Apple’. Whilst the father might be concerned about his daughters becoming dishonoured, it appears as though his main worry is that he is not dishonoured. Rather than focus on whether his treatment of his children was fair or not (and he’s able to justify it to himself easily enough), the father concentrates more on whether the press have represented him fairly or not. When they report that he has locked his daughters up, he is dishonoured, yet we can pretty much observe that this is what’s happened. He’s merely arguing over the finer details. Makhmalbaf doesn’t take the press coverage as reflecting an open and shut case. She provides the father with an opportunity to speak and to try to explain his reasoning. Whilst she doesn’t allow the father to become an object of sympathy, he’s quite a pitiful figure in fact, her access to the family, who are never exploited, is crucial in seeking to understand what actually occurred in this incident.
As has been the case in previous Mohsen Makhmalbaf films, there’s a distinct influence of the French New Wave in ‘The Apple’, which has obviously passed its way down to his daughter. The concept of a feral child/children, unable to communicate or behave and yet to be integrated into society was explored in Truffaut’s ‘The Wild Child’. In Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ‘A Moment of Innocence’, the freeze-frame final shot of the bread and flower, was a tribute to Truffaut’s ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’. The same technique is used in the final sequence of ‘The Apple’. As the blind mother runs into the street, wondering where her husband and children are, a neighbourhood boy dangles an apple around her face (which of course she can’t see). Makhmalbaf freezes the frame as the mother catches the apple.
Much as the bread and flower in her father’s film acted as a symbol of rehabilitation and forgiveness, the apple itself, the recurring motif that so fascinates the two children, acts as a symbol of knowledge or the pursuit of knowledge. These girls follow a young boy who hangs an apple from his head. They’re curious and want to know more about the outside world. When they first return from playing outside, they mark the wall of their room with images they’ve seen, making flowers from handprints. Their minds have been closed off to new experiences but now they have a thirst for knowledge. It’s a sign that it shouldn’t be possible for these girls to return to the lives they had.
Whilst it’s possible that Makhmalbaf doesn’t delve deeper into the strange logic that encouraged the father to more or less imprison his children for 12 years, the film makes a decent fist of doing so, whilst relating it directly to the experience of women in Iran as a whole. It’s perhaps the only minor quibble about this extraordinary, always fascinating debut feature. Combining aspects of both documentary and fiction film making, it allows the family to make their case, whilst also presenting the circumstances as the neighbourhood observe them too. Makhmalbaf is completely objective; there’s no bias, no obvious sympathy with the husband, just a more or less straight retelling of facts. The paradox remains, however, given that ‘The Apple’ is a film that partly reflects upon the discrimination women face in a patriarchal society, why is Iran by some margin the most welcoming national cinema for female directors?