Design by Hadi Farahani
A bitter bite
A critique of Samira Makhmalbaf's "The Apple"
By Ali Akbar Mahdi
August 4, 1999
"The Apple" looks beautiful. And it has won its young director artistic acclaim internationally. Samira Makhmalbaf illuminates the tragic fate of young twin girls in Iran as they confront the ignorance and traditional values of their parents. Her message is undeniably feminist, highlighting discrimination against women and girls that is embedded in Iranian culture.
Makhmalbaf conveys her message poignantly and powerfully in the dialogue between the twins' father and a social case worker. While offering lunch to the case worker, the father explains that he cannot leave his daughters unprotected in the neighborhood because boys might defile them when climbing over the walls to retrieve a ball gone astray during play.
The only actor who gives a sincere performance, the case worker, responds pointedly: "The problem is that these two are girls. If they were boys, you would have taken them out with yourself and they might have climbed someone else's walls too." This exchange succinctly captures the film's message. Makhmalbaf laments the consequences of denying life opportunities to young girls.
"This story has been a way for me to understand how important 'the street,' which is a metaphor for the world, is in a child's integration into society, " Makhmalbaf was quoted as saying. "In Iran, the street is where boys are allowed to play and where girls are not admitted." (1)
Makhmalbaf selects "The Apple" as the film's title and as a recurring motif for two reasons. She noticed that the twins liked this fruit the most. More importantly, she considers the apple as a symbol of life. (2)
I appreciate Makhmalbaf's desire to advocate equal respect for the rights of girls and boys, but I question her the abuse that is evident in her film. I am not a film critic but a sociologist whose concerns are more ethical and methodological than aesthetic. Moreover, I am soft-hearted -- I cry when an innocent person, particularly a child, is harmed.
I credit the young Makhmalbaf and her honorable intentions but I have a problem with how she defines her film and recruits her cast. She claims that "The Apple" is neither a documentary nor a full-fledged drama. She melds the two formats and would like to have it both ways.
"It is documentary," says Makhmalbaf, "in the sense that everybody is playing themselves and I didn't tell them what to do or say. And also because everything that happens relates to an element in their own lives. But it is fiction in that it has a storyline and some of it comes from our imagination, like the idea of having the social worker lock the father up." (3)
The lines between reality and fiction become so blurred in the director's mind that she overlooks the ethical aspects of her work. Surely, there is a long tradition of documentary films where the line between objective reality and subjective interpretation or even outright fiction is constantly blurred. However, the problem here is not just the mixing of fact and fiction, but also how the director approaches her subjects.
Surely, hidden cameras are placed in stores nowadays, and reporters frequently exploit ordinary people caught in tragic or scandalous circumstances. Yet the ubiquity of this practice can not be a justification, particularly by a film-maker. Film makers must be free to pursue their curiosity, they must be skeptical of all imposed rules, and they must function in an open environment where their creativity is received with respect.
Still, these requirements do not free them from their responsibility to the cast, audience, and society. They must be critical of unethical or dangerous application of the camera by some of their colleagues. Film makers, like scientists and other professionals, must respect three rules when conducting research, producing a documentary, and/or experimenting with people: Securing the subjects' consent, protecting their privacy, and insuring that they are not harmed.
If "The Apple" is a documentary, then Makhmalbaf violates the rights of innocent children and their ignorant parents by displaying their private pain through her camera's lens. In a drama, the director chooses a cast member, gaining his/her consent to play a role. The role may be disturbing, even gruesome. But the performer consciously decides to play his/her role.
A professional actor grasps what is happening to his/her character in the drama and why; s/he receives a paycheck for what s/he does. An actor may even recognize the consequences of his/her performance, which may be injurious to his/her career and/or to the audience.
In a documentary, by contrast, the camera is an "observer" with no control over events. Characters are subjects of their own affairs, doing what they wish to do, and responsible for what they do for or to themselves. They may agree to appear on film but not to be manipulated or harmed.
This distinction between the documentary and dramatic forms raises numerous troubling questions about "The Apple." Does Makhmalbaf have the parents' and their twins' consent to be filmed?
She acknowledges that "the mother is from Azarbaijan and does not speak Persian, only Turkish. She is blind and so pessimistic, she does not want to talk to anybody. The person whose permission I had to get was the father."She goes to the welfare department and, as the only woman there, affords the father "a chance to express his motives." (4)
As Makhmalbaf puts it: "I didn't want to judge him; I just wanted to know what made him do such things. After five minutes I found him talking with me. I never said, 'We want to shoot a film.' He just took me [to his house] and started telling me some things." (5)
Makhmalbaf rolls her camera immediately. She acts quickly because she "... was sure the girls would change very quickly. And over the 11 days of shooting they did develop a lot; you can see it on the screen." (6)
Given the above statements from the director, is it clear what kind of consent was received from the Naderi family? Was she concerned at all that the mother was not interested in this project? Wasn't she bothered that the blind woman cursed throughout the film and was reluctant to go along with the project? What was Miss Makhmalbaf's purpose in making this movie? Did she wish to expose the plight of these twins or to exploit their tragedy to produce a film about a provocative case?
What turned "The Apple" sour for me -- and made me squirm in my chair as I watched it -- was how Makhmalbaf put this family in difficult positions for the sake of shooting her movie.
One should remember that the Naderi family members are not just actors in this film. They are the victims of certain cultural and socio-economic conditions as well as of their own actions. To depict this reality, Miss Makhmalbaf not only asks the family members to relive their pain again, but also manipulates them to elicit the desired performance and, thus, serve the script.
The young director asserts that she "did not dictate to anybody what to say, but was fairly sure that, for instance, if [she] showed the father a newspaper article attacking him, he would become upset." (7)
No wonder Mr. Naderi's anger in the film is so genuine; he is deeply wounded about an incident that insults his sense of family honor. No wonder Zahra's face reflects fear when she cannot open the lock to the family home in which the social worker has imprisoned her father. The little girl is terrified because she has no clue that Makhmalbaf wants to evoke the father's reaction to imprisonment and that this scene derives from a premeditated script.
In some scenes, the director casts a boy to entice the twins with their desired fruit, the apple, as they chase it around the neighborhood. In the film's last scene, we see the same mischievous boy bobbing an apple in front of the blind mother from an upstairs window. The irritated woman, who has no idea what the boy is putting her through, thinks that her daughters are touching or playing with her. She reacts to the apple hitting her face and head by calling her daughters. She seems totally confused and lost in the street with something brushing her face from the front and back: "I'm scared. Help me get my children back," says the helpless mother.
In taunting the mother and subjecting her to the audience's laughter, Makhmalbaf's abuse of a blind woman reaches a new and depressing climax. I am sure the director wants to imply freedom for the mother, just like her daughters and husband who escape the house. In fact, she concludes that when the blind mother reaches the apple, she has also attained "life."
Makhmalbaf offers a nice and self-vindicating conclusion, but at whose expense? Even more unnerving is that this film is scripted and edited by the director's father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose international reputation as a director is unquestionable. Western audiences laud his cinematic innovation, thoughtfulness, and poetic approach to film-making.
For Iranians, however, he is also known for his questionable ethics and recruitment techniques. He was insensitive to his actors' rights in such earlier films as "Nasouh" (Repentance) and "Salam Cinema". Given the age and experiences of the young Makhmalbaf, one can almost understand her similar lack of sensitivity to the Naderi family. But what about her father?
(1) Statement made available by Samira Makhmalbaf for 1998 Cannes Film Festival
Official Selection Committee. Distributed by New Yorker Films.
(2) "Quietly ruling the roost," Samira Makhmalbaf's interview with Sheila Johnston, Sight and Sound (January 1999).
(3) "Quietly ruling the roost," cited in note no. 2.
(4) Statement by S. Makhmalbaf cited in note no. 1.
(5) Samira Makhmalbaf, quoted by Rana Dogar, Newsweek, October 26, 1998.
(6) Statement by S. Makhmalbaf cited in note no. 1.
(7) "Quietly ruling the roost," cited in note no. 2.