In life, there are some people one just clicks with. The chemistry is palpable from the get go, and it begins a friendship that lasts a lifetime. With others, it takes longer to develop the relationship. And still others, things start well but burn out quickly. The same, it seems, is true of filmmakers, and I am not sure whether the director of At Five in the Afternoon, then 23-year old Samira Makhmalbaf will fall into the first category or the last. My hope is of course, the first, and I’ll assume that until I know differently.
The film roped me in almost immediately, and it was during a particular scene in the first 10 minutes of the film. Young Nogreh (Agheleh Rezaie) is on her way to town, riding on the back of her father’s cart. We see her open a large book, no doubt the Koran, and begin to sing from it. After a few bars, her voice is overtaken by a man’s that is seemingly part of the soundtrack, as opposed to being someone there on the street. Therefore, the voice hovers above, dominating the shot and everything in it. As this transition takes place, the camera pans up from our close shot on Nogreh to a wide shot of the street, with the many carts and people and shops all along it. After he sings a few bars, we then hear a group of children (and probably women) singing, overtaking the man’s voice. The camera then focuses back in on the cart and Nogreh walking into a school of sorts, filled with women and girls in burkhas, all singing from the Koran. This sequence was seamless, giving us one of the main themes of the film – that Allah, the object of worship for all these people, is the same. They all lift their voices to him in the same way. They all read from the same book. There is an inherent commonality and equality in this sequence, so simple, yet where the form reaches out to the viewer and shows itself to be not just random images and sounds, but actually content.
The film centers its narrative on Nogreh, who we find out early on has aspirations to be the president of Afghanistan. She and other girls at her school have this dream, which they feel is justified in a country that has just been liberated from the Taliban. However, that liberation has not made everything rosy. She still has to sneak to school, behind her father’s back. If he knew, he would no doubt punish her. She is still forced to wear a burkha, again by her father. Nogreh’s life is so restrictive, that changing her shoes becomes a significant political statement.
Makhmalbaf’s success in this film (already her third at such a young age!) is in bringing us into Nogreh’s world so completely that we find ourselves surprised when she begins to experience resistance to her dreams. And the slow, creeping way in which her dreams are challenged certainly adds to this surprise. It seems that all of a sudden, the challenges come. Yet if we are honest, we can look back and see those elements there all along. We, like Nogreh, convince ourselves that her rise to the presidency is not only possible, but also probable!
One final note on Makhmalbaf’s portrayal of the West: The beautiful scene with the Frenchman is nicely handled, and the soldier is shown to be a kind man who is genuinely interested in serving the Afghan people. What ultimately we see though coming out of that interaction, along with a couple of nicely placed flyovers by planes and helicopters, is that while the country has been “liberated”, much more needs to happen before real change occurs. For all its good intentions, the West has very little say in changing the minds of people. The Taliban may have been ousted from power, but the Taliban is still alive and well in the minds of many people. Samira Makhmalbaf has made a powerful, heartfelt film that gives a look not only into the contemporary scene in Afghanistan, but also into the human experience that we all face.