At Five in the Afternoon

By Gareth Buckell

Daughter of one of Iran’s most successful directors, Samira Makhmalbaf has become an important figure in Asian cinema in her own right, being well placed to document the changes faced by women in Islamic societies undergoing radical political upheaval. After bursting on to the scene with The Apple (1998) and Blackboards (2000), the former teenage prodigy was challenged to mature, being 21 years of age on 11 September 2001. Samira contributed a segment called ‘God, Construction and Destruction’ to 11’09”01 – September 11 (2002), and since then has released a film dealing with the position of Afghan women immediately after the fall of the Taliban – At Five in the Afternoon.

At Five in the Afternoon
bears comparison with Kandahar (2001), by the director’s father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who wrote the scenario. However, Samira’s film, while no less meditative, has a more evolved storyline, perhaps because the Makhmalbaf family has had time to reflect on the political changes in Afghanistan. Dealing with the new dawn promised for women by the American invasion, At Five in the Afternoon charts idealistic Nogreh’s ambition to become president of the new republic of Afghanistan.

Although the film expresses a level of cynicism and despair – not least through the García Lorca poem that gives the film its title – Samira’s portrayal of post-Taliban Afghanistan is not devoid of humour. This is lent mostly by the juxtaposition between the traditional, patriarchal Afghan infrastructure, represented by Nogreh’s father who disapproves of the liberal education offered to her, and the Western presences held over from the war. Much of the humour is immensely cynical – note the exchange between Nogreh and a French soldier, conducted through the interpreting poet, about why Jacques Chirac was re-elected, or the scenes in the discarded aeroplane where Nogreh’s family find themselves after their refugee camp becomes overcrowded.

Nogreh is a sensitively constructed character, maintaining her dignity and political idealism in a society that has endured numerous false dawns. The symbols that Samira uses to signify her desires and her obstacles are simple, such as the white high-heeled shoes that Nogreh has to change into at her school; these represent both a radical feminine opposition to patriarchy and an acceptance of some (but by no means all) Western cultural trends.

While the overall tone is the film is bleak, at least in its dealings with the present, Nogreh’s optimism is never quite crushed by her ruinous surroundings or the numerous tragedies in her life, suggesting that although the social structures that have made life for Afghan women so difficult are deeply entrenched, they may be broken by a faith in liberal policies undertaken by an self-determined Afghan government. A scene where the poet pays for Nogreh to be photographed for a school election campaign, for example, shows how embedded the prejudices that she must fight are: the photographer and the poet lightly mock her aspirations, but she remains determined to overcome them.

At Five in the Afternoon is a deceptively complex film: the depiction of Nogreh’s familial and social relations, and her politics, seems simplistic, but the subtleties of Samira’s direction ensure that the sparingly used poetic motifs, sparse scenarios and earthy conversations are powerful. A highly meditative film, Samira Makhmalbaf’s latest work is strikingly mature, and an intelligent documentation of a troubled country in yet another period of transition.
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