Global Village People


The teenaged daughter of an internationally celebrated filmmaker makes a feature-length documentary about twin 11-year-old girls who have been locked up at home since birth by their blind mother and elderly, fundamentalist father. By its very existence, The Apple articulates, in a way no fiction could, the contradictions of Iran’s Islamic Republic.

Sometimes, it takes a global village. Samira Makhmalbaf, who captivated American journalists when she appeared with The Apple at the last New York Film Festival, says that she was inspired to make her first movie by a TV report on the residents of a poor Tehran neighborhood who had petitioned a state welfare agency to redress the twins’ situation. Using film stock approved for a project to be directed by her father Mohsen Makhmalbaf (best known here for Gabbeh), the 17-year-old neophyte made The Apple in 11 days.

According to the filmmaker, The Apple had no prepared script. After a brief introduction—shot on video, handheld verité-style—showing the parents reclaiming their girls from the welfare-agency offices, Makhmalbaf devised and filmed a series of situations that compelled the actual family to react. If the methodology is avant-garde and the directorial mode behavioral, it might be said that Makhmalbaf had been preparing for her own performance all her life, having appeared as a child actress in her father’s 1988 feature The Cyclist and served as a production assistant on his latest film, The Silence.

Initially, the two girls—Massoumeh and Zahra—can barely speak. Although well-behaved and good-natured, they are scarcely socialized; they appear infantile, if not mentally retarded, all the more so once their parents come to fetch them. But if the girls seem feebleminded, what is one to make of their pathetically wimpering father? Or of their fully veiled mother whose constant sotto voce muttering (in Turkish, the only language she understands) has more than a whisper of insanity. But who is crazy here, the family or society?

As extreme as the particular situation may be, it is impossible not to treat this found metaphor as a cultural critique—particularly once Makhmalbaf switches to 35mm film and, with a surprising degree of delicacy and tact, allows her subjects to redramatize their life together. The “group therapy” portion of the movie is signaled by Makhmalbaf’s shift to a deliberate overhead angle as the father brings Massoumeh and Zahra back home and, ignoring the welfare agency’s injunction, once more locks them in the house.

Skinny and sweet, with big eyes and lolling tongues, the twins are as much mischievous pets as prepubescent children. They clown behind their gate—beating spoons on the bars—until the old man returns like the witch in a fairy tale, carrying their daily bread and ice. In a bit of mordant comedy doubtless staged for the benefit of the filmmaker, father treats the twins to a cooking lesson and (prompted by a newspaper clipping that Makhmalbaf evidently sprang on him) argues with a neighbor, bitterly complaining that he has been “slandered.” Meanwhile, the twins are distracted by the presence outside their gate of a child ice-cream vendor, even younger than themselves.

At length, the state power arrives in the person of a no-nonsense social worker, bringing an ultimatum for the father and little mirrors for the girls. The mirror is not just the movie’s main special effect but the signifier of its intentions. But what exactly does The Apple reflect? In an inspired bit of forced role-playing, the social worker locks the old man in the house and, leaving him with a hacksaw to cut away the bars on his front door, shoos the shuffling, mugging children out into the street.

The Apple is hardly straight documentary. Developing specific visual metaphors, Makhmalbaf has a bit of her father’s hieroglyphic style. (The Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) Massoumeh and Zahra enact little scenes—stealing ice cream, chasing the eponymous fruit that’s dangled in front of them by a neighbor boy, heading off to the marketplace with two other little girls from their street. In the end, the twins head back to the market with their father, leaving their mother alone in the courtyard. Sightless and without language, she’s the real prisoner and yet, even in her case, there is the possibility of transformation.

Makhmalbaf was the same age as the underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin was when she made her orgiastic, taboo-breaking Christmas on Earth and, although the two films could not be more different, there is a kindred purity in their desire for liberation. (“Barbara Rubin has no shame; angels have no shame; Barbara Rubin is an angel,” Jonas Mekas wrote.) A font of excuses, the father compares his daughters to delicate blossoms. His house is their shelter. “They may wither and die in the sun.” But we see them seek the light and bloom in the clear gaze of Makhmalbaf’s camera.

Experimental docudrama, open-ended essay, The Apple is a remarkable movie. Still, the question remains: Is Samira Makhmalbaf the real flower of the Islamic revolution or a hothouse orchid? Have Massoumeh and Zahra truly been set free? Or will they be shut in again two years hence?

A no-less-exotic Central Asian neorealist child-centered family drama, Beshkempir—The Adopted Son arrives here from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, the first feature by 42-year-old Aktan Abdykalykov.

Beshkempir is set in a Kyrgyzstani village and predicated on the still-existing ancient custom by which the parents of a large family offer a baby, generically known as Beshkempir, to a childless couple. The movie has been compared to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ethno-poetic Gabbeh but it is less fancifully folkloric and more polished—an understated, idealized, and fastidiously crafted movie in the manner fostered by the no-longer-extant Soviet film schools.

Modest as it is, Beshkempir is less concerned with the specificity of rural Kyrgyzstan than with a kind of natural kid culture. Instinctual creatures, five pre-adolescent boys splash in the mud, run from bees, steal eggs, and spy on village women before sculpting one out of dirt, prone and spread-eagle, as the arena for their sexual games. (This last activity is amusingly interrupted by a herd of cattle.) Ultimately the pack behavior turns on the adopted son who, teased as an orphan, is driven to fisticuffs with his former friends. One unforgettable line, directed at Beshkempir by another boy’s angry mother: “He’s not your wife to beat up like that.”

As in The Apple, a mirror is the movie’s most important special effect, but Abdykalykov has no particular overview on gender, or social relations. Life in his Kyrgyz village is traditionally ordered, although seemingly unencumbered by government or religion. The only sign of state power is a brief glimpse of paper money, and the most elaborate local ritual (an eloquently simple funeral notwithstanding) is the outdoor projection of a Hindi musical, shown to the appreciative villagers one reel at a time.

Abdykalykov is most drawn to vivid detail. Beshkempir begins with a lateral pan along a boldly patterned rug as if to preview the movie’s patchwork assemblage of tightly framed incidents. The black-and-white narrative is interspersed with brief color epiphanies. The deliberate, busy soundtrack of birdcalls, dog barks, sheep baas, wind, and water sounds contribute to the sense of a vast landscape on which only the sketchiest human notations are inscribed.