At five in the afternoon Samira Makmalbaf (2003 Iran.Fr)

, 2013-04-08

At five in the afternoon     Samira Makmalbaf (2003 Iran.Fr) Agheleh Rezaie; Abdolgani Yousefrazi

Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 4 April 2013 Ticket price: £5

shoes seen in a mirror

The phrase, At five in the afternoon (5AN), the recitation of which, spoken over a desolate and empty landscape, opens the film, is taken from the Lorca poem with the same title. The Lorca poem is a lament for the goring to death in 1934 in the bull ring, of his friend, the matador Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. Samira Makmalbaf's (SM) film is also a lament for the loss of something vital in the world, the independent spirit of the female. Perhaps 5AM also has a metaphorical resonance, in that the harsh exposed public elements of Afghan society have characteristics that make it similar to the bull ring. Afghanistan as a place where those who expose themselves to the five o'clock light of the public arena and its judgement, are gored to death.

Enfolded into the 5AN is the journey towards the lament. A lament for life suffocated and for the type of death that awaits independent spirit, in particular but not exclusively the female, in a society that has been twisted by brutal external forces, and taken blind refuge in tradition. But although 5AN, has a pessimistic ending with the death of Laylomah's child and the deeper exile of Nograh into the Taliban heartlands, the film is remarkable and sustained by its affirmation of spirit. I think SM avoids the simplistic crass iteration of despair; SM has produced a true lament that whilst marking the point of death, affirms the forces that are life bestowing. The flesh may die; spirit is a flame that can always be rekindled. The lament it seems to me is always about humans as worlds, humans as a totality in themselves of a world, that always has the possibility of reaching out and interpenetrating and affecting contiguous beings. Body and soul.

And this is the strength of SM's film. Though life may now, in 2013, for Afghan women and men be lived out in the enveloping shadow of reactive fundamentalism, the shibboleths of Mullahs: – God knows all we do – women refrain from dancing. These dour incantations cannot extinguish the actuality that the expression of joy and the gift of personal voice are in themselves the flame of life.

5AN establishes that it is, the within, that nurtures spirit. Oppressors whether religious or political have always attempted to suppress 'within space'. In 5AM the girls/ young women, sit with their veils off in the courtyard of the girls school. Without veil they are alive and vital as they discuss the Taliban and its repression of women, and then discuss the idea of the possibility of a woman becoming the president of Afghanistan. The vitality of this debate is electrifying and captivating.

These young women, in a film made in 2002 ( released 2003), the first year of the American (UN/ IFOR) invasion after 14 years of Taliban rule, have come to life like seeds in the desert after rain. There is evidenced a collective female courage that simply has lain low until conditions changed. The debate is innocent and naive but passionate. It affirms something precious in life that always endures. Even the later death of one of the most outspoken young women in a suicide bombing, and the foreseen deterioration of security, cannot lessen the intensity of feeling expressed and the certainty that these feelings and insights can never be totally crushed.

Today we see the courage of Malala Yousafzai from the tribal lands in Pakistan and we recognise in her the young women in this film

In 5AN, SM finds a visual complement to her script in way she uses images of women in Afghanistan. These images of women in burqas destroy the cliches that we normally accept as signifying women in Afghan culture. The shots of the young women moving en masse in their blue burqas take on a different meaning because we have seen this visual collective of burqas represent themselves effectively as individuals: we have heard their voices. We now know they have voice. The usual shots in both photographs and in film of women in full burqa huddled in groups, normally signify to the Western gaze a passivity of being, a lacking of individual will. SM confronts and demolishes the cliche by giving the viewer access to the simple fact that behind the image of a group of women traditionally attired, there are as many individual voices. Voices denied but nevertheless actual. This outer aspect of uniformity is only an appearance behind which lies that which is to be revealed.

The protagonist, Nograh gives the film its psychic movement. It again seems that SM has not wanted to produce a sort of Afghan Mouchette or Rosetta. In some senses both these films close down their female protagonists and allow them little inner or outer space to do other than to slide down into death. Nograh has multiple dimensions through which her being is defined. Nograh locked into an actual world. creates worlds, other spaces for her existence outside of the fundamentalist cage that her father has put her in. Nograh externally complies with the strictures of her father; and in SM's scenario there is no implied criticism of the father. He is severe; perhaps his freedom and groundedness consist in his strict observance. He has no ability to see any other choice for his daughter other than to impose on her his own beliefs. Outwardly Nograh obeys, each act of obeisance closing down her outer world. But within there is another story. The debate in the school captures her imagination and transforms her internal world. The idea of a woman becoming president of Afghanistan, like Bhutto in Pakistan, infiltrates her consciousness feeding her imagination. Her excitement communicates itself to the young poet who is enchanted by her vision and encourages the expression of the fantasy. The idea becomes part of her meaningful world of possibilities.

The leitmotif running through the film is the pair of white heeled shoes secreted by Nograh (N). This is the second time in a couple of weeks where I have seen women's shoes have featured as a significant force in a movie. Park's Stoker uses the cathectic charge of heeled shoes as part of his movie's signage, as a symbol. In the case of Stoker the high heel shoes act as a fetish for an erotically charged rite de passage from adolescence to womanhood. In Stoker. The high heeled shoes are used as a laboriously fostered symbolic cliche for sexual potency and freedom, a movement from infantalised incest to sexual independence. In 5AN I think it is otherwise. SM uses the modest pair of white heeled shoes that Nograh has somehow acquired not as a symbol but rather as a practical tool; a means by which N may pass from one world through into another. The shoes have a fairy tale quality. The shoes are secret shoes, secreted shoes, power shoes. Slipped onto her feet they are in themselves the entry into another world.

N's shoes, above all for her are a form of practical magic. They transform reality. They are not a statement. They are not a symbol. They enable her to move.

5Am was cogently and powerfully shot amidst the ruins of Afghanistan. SM films a country that has been smashed up and is overwhelmed by internal migration of refugees. It is collapsing into chaos; perhaps the only order is religion. But 5AM seeks out in its scenario the visual possibilities of the ruins. N's father fleeing from what he sees as profane chaos, finds shelter in the ruins of a old colonnaded palace, with huge high ceilinged rooms. A vastness and emptiness define this structure in opposition to the density and fullness of the cities. And, there is one shot of N, in her white heeled shoes as she walks on the flagstones between the monumental colonnade, taking possession of the space in her billowing blue burqa. It is a moment of magic. As N walks she becomes a queen or the president of Afghanistan, alone in this palace. The walk is an unforgettable act of personal power. Her power; a woman's power.

Although cruelly and honestly pessimistic in its tone and in the final destination of N, stranded in desolation and emptiness and death, with her father, 5AM does not leave a psychic legacy of hopelessness. The characters are not, as in so many movies, mere mechanical puppets attached to the working out of script. 5AN is set and shot in a real world in the rawness of Afghan society. A society molded by the terrible forces released by invasion and war. But the characters have dignity of their own worlds, both father and daughter and it is this inner dignity that carries them and carries us through the movie without despair.

Adrin Neatrour