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The Apple

Fruit For Thought

By Bence Olveczky

Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf

Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf

With Ghorban Ali Naderi, Azizeh Mohamadi, Massoumeh Naderi, Zahra Naderi, Zahra Saghrisaz

In the near-iconic opening shot of Samira Makhmalbaf’s remarkable first feature, The Apple, a hand is reaching into the frame to water a dried-out plant. The futility of this simple act becomes evident as we see the life-bringing water miss the pot.

The hand performing this unavailing task belongs to Zahra, an 11 year-old girl who plays herself in this true-to-life film. The bars hindering Zahra from reaching the thirsty flower are the same ones that separate her from the outside world. For as long they can remember, she and her twin sister Massoumeh have been imprisoned in the family home by a righteous and protecting father.

In tying the fate of the flower to the condition of the twins, Samira Makhmalbaf manages to create a powerful and poetic metaphor for the condition of girls and women in an anachronistic Iranian society where archaic traditions can cause antagonism and modern-day tragedy.

In a central part of the film, the father is asked to justify his daughters’ captivity to a social worker. Defending his deed, the 65 year-old unemployed patriarch refers to a tattered copy of “Advice to Fathers.”

“My daughters are like flowers,” he says, “expose them to sun, and they will wither away.” Interpreting the “sun” to mean “boys”, the religious father, whose only ally is his blind wife, decides to isolate his beloved daughters in the name of dignity.

After learning about this real-life tragedy from Iranian television, the 17 year-old director Samira Makhmalbaf became interested in the fate and future of the twins. Being the daughter of famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira’s upbringing was both privileged and liberal, and in most respects very different from the experience her two subjects shared. Despite their different backgrounds, Samira shows us an understanding of the sisters’ situation that is both compelling and real. Approaching the twins, she even persuaded them to play themselves in this re-enactment of their release from captivity. As the result, the acting by the two girls is nothing short of magical. Their purity and innocence is conveyed in unaffected and genuinely charming performances so rarely seen on film.

The film starts with hand-held video footage, cleverly adding a jolt of immediacy to the happenings. We follow the girls as they leave the house for the first time. They are escorted by civil servants from the Welfare Department who finally responded after a petition to free the twins was signed by the neighbors. But we see the girls return to their prison after their father promises the authorities to never repeat his misdeed -- a promise he promptly breaks.

A social worker is summoned and this time she releases the twins and puts the parents where the children used to be -- behind bars. With the roles now reversed, Zahra and Massoumeh, both slightly autistic and with hampered gaits, are free to explore the outside world.

Following temptation itself -- an apple tantalizingly dangled before them by a playful boy -- the pubescent girls venture outside. Their sense of discovery in the everyday streets of Teheran is colored with a delightful awe for simple pleasures. The taste of ice cream, the encounter with a goat, the interactions with vendors and potential friends give rise to both comic and deeply moving situations.

Shot in 11 days, The Apple is everything a Hollywood film is not, and that’s a major compliment. This understated and poetic, yet refreshingly simple, exercise in filmmaking raises urgent and difficult questions, but refrains from giving us stereotypical and moralistic answers. Rather than making judgment calls, Samira Makhmalbaf challenges us to reflect on the contradictions emerging from the clash between traditional values and the ones propagated by a modern and civilized society.

It is clear that the making of The Apple was a profound experience for both Zahra and Massoumeh -- a summary initiation into both the real and the reel world. As viewers, we are allowed to share in their joy of freedom and exploration, and in their enthusiastic appreciation of the small things in life. It is a rare gift to see something so authentic in such an artistic context.

I recently read that Samira’s younger sister has shot two short films. She is ten years old and will probably soon join the ranks of her sister and father. If Samira’s filmmaking is an indication of her sister’s talents, then the Iranian Film Revolution -- or is it Evolution? -- is set to continue.