Samira Makhmalbaf: God and Satan in "The Apple"
"The Apple" is a stunning feature film debut from Samira Makhmalbaf, the 18-year-old daughter of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Her father is the director of films such as "Gabbeh," "Salaam Cinema," and "The Cyclist," but with "The Apple," the younger Makhmalbaf definitively establishes her own voice.
Richly allusive and beautifully photographed, "The Apple" follows the aftermath of a real-life situation in which a father had kept his two daughters confined to their home since birth. When neighbors reported the situation to the welfare authorities in Teheran, the daughters, who are slightly retarded, were removed from the home and returned to their parents only on the condition that the father allow the two to leave home and explore the outside world. Makhmalbaf heard about the story on a Wednesday and began filming on the Sunday four days later. She follows the return of the girls and their ensuing exploits as their father's philosophy bridles against the welfare edict. In addition to the father, the two daughters, and their mother-who is blind-the story is populated by a cast of characters including a representative from the welfare department and other children who the young girls meet during their steps into the outside world.
Ostensibly a simple story using only quotidian props, the film has a dense layer of symbolism that resonates on many levels, most notably as a cry against oppression. It is a deeply moving film about the human spirit and the inevitable thirst for knowledge and freedom. As is the tradition in Iranian cinema, "The Apple" explores the question of what happens when real-life is brought into contact with cinema, creating a complex melange of documentary and fiction. The elder Makhmalbaf edited the film and co-wrote the screenplay with his daughter.
Makhmalbaf discussed the film in New York following its screening at the New York Film Festival (NYFF) where it played in October. In addition to the NYFF, the film showed at festivals around the world, including Cannes and Rotterdam. Now only 18 - 17 when the film was finished - Makhmalbaf is both well spoken and passionate.
Distributed by New Yorker Films, "The Apple" opened in New York on February 19 at Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas.
indieWIRE: The film begins with video footage. Why did you do that?
Samira Makhmalbaf: The most important reason was because the [35-mm] camera wasn't ready. When we went there, I wanted to start shooting the film very soon, and I didn't want to waste time. But the camera wasn't ready. I thought about shooting it with videocam, and then I thought, yes, it's even better than shooting [it] with a 35-mm camera. So it was because of that.
iW: Beginning your film in video seems to be a response to Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry," which ends with a sequence in video.
Makhmalbaf: I hadn't seen "Taste of Cherry" [when I made "The Apple"]. I think ["Cherry"] wasn't made by that time. It wasn't because of that.
iW: There are many layers to the film, it tells the story of the father and the daughters as well as other stories. What were your ideas about how you were putting the film together?
Makhmalbaf: There are so many things. At first, the most important thing that I wanted to say was how important it is for us to have contact to be a complete human being. If we have no communication with the outside world, we will be the same as animals, we won't be complete humans. It was the first thing that I wanted to say.
As you see in the film, these two girls at the beginning of the film look like animals. They just make sounds the same as animals. We shot this in 11 days, and during this 11 days, they changed more than during those 11 years, just because of having contact with us.
And it can be about all of humanity, men and women. I didn't travel a lot, but I talked to so many people about different places, different countries. I thought that not only in Iran but also in the whole world, women's chances are less than men to come out, to communicate with the outside world, to have a social role. ["The Apple"] is maybe more about women and it is maybe more about women living in Iran, because they still have fewer chances to come out. Or maybe about women living in, for example, Afghanistan. But it can be about everybody.
One of the reasons that made me care about this subject-there were so many other reasons - but one was because I was reading about sociology. I found I care about such things as these and I was curious about it. And I saw some other examples that happened in California, where a girl's father put her in the house for many years. So such a thing can happen in California or in Iran.
iW: It seems like in Iranian cinema generally, there is this way that you use both real life and cinema in your films. What are your ideas about the tension between those two?
Makhmalbaf: For this film, for example. For this film, it's something else. Because it's based on a real story. Some people ask me, "Are those two girls the real girls?" I say, "Oh yes, they are. Why should I go to another actor or actress and bring them?" At the beginning I thought - and for writing the script - I thought, "Nobody, even a specialist, they don't know how the behavior would be of two humans who have never had any contact with the outside world." So I had to bring them to be themselves.
Some people ask me, "Is it real, is it documentary or fiction?" I say to them, "It is between documentary and fiction." It is fiction because it has the storyline, it has a script. But it is documentary because everybody is the same person. All the dialogue [is spoken and created] by each person.
iW: What did the script consist of? How did you write it?
Makhmalbaf: The script. After four days, I went there [to the welfare office] and started shooting the film, so I didn't have any script. And I didn't want to have any script before seeing [the family]. Because I didn't want to have just my imagination about these two girls. So I just went there, and just every night, my father and I started talking about them, discussing them. And we just came to a conclusion, and my father just wrote some kind of notes, without any dialogue, without any details. So the next day, I had to find dialogue and details. For the dialogue, I never dictated [to the family] what to say. It is something that I didn't direct. Everyone could say whatever they wanted. I know what they are going to do, what they are going to say, because I came to know them later. But I didn't dictate to them. I let them say their own words. So, it is documentary and it is fiction, both of them.
I didn't go there, and I didn't want to re-make something that happened before. We are continuing this story. If we wanted to re-make something that happened, I would have to ask them, "What happened before?" And then at the end of the film, it would be the shot [that my film begins with], when the welfare organization came and took the children out. But it is not. It is the continuing of their lives.
So, when we went there for 11 days, we were shooting the film and we were living together. So, I think this is the third world. This is the third world. Because there was the world in my mind, in my imagination. And there was something quite real, [the family's] own life, which they were living. But while we were living together during these 11 days, we made, we created another world, which is a third world, between my imagination and between their life. Something that we came to an agreement to with each other. Something that we preferred to be, not something which was. Something that the family and I wanted, so it is the third world, which is very true now, between documentary and fiction.
And with this film, because everybody was the real person, we didn't have any actresses or actors. [But] for some of the [extra characters], I needed some [actresses or actors, but I didn't want [to use professional actors]. So I know these people, for example, my cousin [a young girl who meets the two daughters in the film], so I brought them into the film. Or, for example, my grandfather, who is the watch seller. These are the only people who do not come out of that story.
iW: How did you get the family to participate in the film?
Makhmalbaf: I had to get permission, not from the children, though, because they were retarded. The mother, because she was [such a] pessimist, she couldn't.
But the father, I had to get permission from him. But I just thought it would be the worst part. [I thought] it would be very hard to communicate with [the] father, because he has done such a bad thing to his children. How is he going to be with me? Because I was a girl, I thought, "He is very religious, he is not going to communicate with me." But I went there for the first day to see the children in the welfare organization but instead I saw the father. And I just started listening to him, I didn't talk a lot, I just listened to him, without judging him, without condemning him, and I didn't put any blame on him. And very soon, he trusted me, very soon. Before me, so many people went to him and they just judged him, they just condemned him. But it was very simple. He just trusted me. And I never asked him, "Will you let me make a new film of you or not?" He just took me to his house by himself, and he just started explaining himself to me. It was very easy for me.
iW: How did you, for instance, direct the mother in the film? What kind of direction did you give to her?
Makhmalbaf: The mother is something else, I have to explain her characteristic for you. The mother was blind and partially deaf. She couldn't speak Farsi [the primary language in Iran]. She just knew Turkish. She was blind but she wasn't [totally] deaf. She [just] couldn't hear very well. And she was very pessimistic, she didn't want to communicate with anybody. She was the only person that whenever I wanted her to come to the film, everything had to be ready except her. But camera, roll sound, everything had to be ready, and we were just waiting for the mother. And she had some kind of interesting characteristics. Sometimes at the beginning, when I went to the welfare organization, I saw sometimes she was talking, she was whispering. While she was whispering, she just cursed everybody, said something bad. But while she was talking aloud, she was saying something good to everybody. And I found that she is very pessimistic, and she is afraid of communicating with outside world.
Mother and children-both of them-are really in the same situation but in some ways they are different. Because when father goes out and locks the door, these two children, because they are very near to their natural instinct, they prefer to come out, to come to that hall [in the front of the house shown in the film]. Or if the door is open, they prefer to go out. But the mother preferred, even if the door is open, to go into the room, lock the door, and go under her chador, because she thinks that in this way she is safer. Because she believes in it. But these two girls are very near to their natural instinct, so they don't believe in that. But it shows us what will happen for these two girls- after a few months, a few times, they will believe in [what the mother believes].
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following paragraph includes a description of the ending to the film.]
For the final shot [of the film, in which the mother reaches for an apple], for this shot, I couldn't tell her what to do. But I just provoked her, and I made everything ready. In so many ways I prodded her, for example, taking out everybody, their children, in so many ways I prodded her. And I put camera here. And I told her, "This is the last scene." It's only me, but God has to direct this scene, this last scene. And I was waiting, I said, "I hope it will happen." So she went out and she stood in front of the mirror, and I thought, "Oh God! Even the mother, she's blind, but she stood in front of the mirror!" Because everybody in the film stood in front of the mirror so they could see themselves. But the mother stood there, and I made a close-up of her. And then she went out and everything happened, just prodding her. But I didn't know if it will happen or not, I was just waiting to see. But it happened.
iW: One of the characters in the film has an apple at the end of a stick that he uses to tease the girls, and later, their mother. Did this come from their life?
Makhmalbaf: I gave it to him. [The props] came from their life, the element is from their life. but the [storyline] is for us. For example, the apple. Why not, for example, something else? The apple came from their life. When I went to the welfare organization, and I found myself with their parents, everybody. They were worried about their future, what will happen for these two girls. I just found these two girls very happy-they know what to do, they found an apple, started eating it and enjoying it. And I thought, "They just know what to do by their natural instinct, [there's] nothing to be worried about them." And then I thought about it, [my father and I] talked about it, and we found, yes, the apple is the symbol of life. Because of the first thing that Satan gave an apple to Eve so all of us could come out, come to this earth to start living. So it comes from their life. But these ideas are fiction.
iW: The beautiful thing about "The Apple" is that it has so much symbolism. What are your ideas about the apple or about Satan? Is the apple necessarily a bad thing?
Makhmalbaf: A bad thing? Of course it is a good thing. I said it. It was the first thing that caused all of us to come to this world, to start living. So how can it be bad? If it is bad, it means all of this world is bad. And the last shot when the mother comes out. I thought, maybe you think when the father and the children are all out [of the house], you think it's the end of the film but it is not. Because there is somebody who is still important [that needs to] come out: the mother. All the time, I thought: the children are for the future, the father is for today, and the mother for yesterday. If these two girls are going to develop, to change, the mother, just one step later, she has to come. If she doesn't come, she doesn't let the children continue their developing, their changing. So she has to come. At the end, this boy [who teases the mother with an apple] is at the same time a symbol of Satan and God together. He is provoking [the mother] to have this apple. But at the end, he is the person, the same as God, who put the apple, put the life, in the hand of the mother. So, at the same time, [he is] Satan and God. Provoking, but [ultimately] putting the apple.
iW: How else did your father influence on the film?
Makhmalbaf: You can see. He is the scriptwriter and editor. The script is more important than editing, because in the editing nothing could change, because we were shooting day by day. The [storyline] is from my father. But I was the person who was directing the film, and I was all the time communicating with the family. I know them. So this element, I saw them, I could see them, and then I could have my imagination [about them]. But I talked to my father, and [the script] came out of both of our minds, this kind of communication.