Documentary Fiction

The Apple (Makhmalbaf, 1998) was Samira Makhmalbaf’s directorial debut, made when she was 18 years old. The film follows a Tehrani family who have been visited by Iranian social services after concerned neighbours complain that the 11 year old twin daughters have never been allowed to leave the house, instead spending their entire lives locked up inside. Makhmalbaf’s story centres around these girls and what happens to them and their family when they step into the outside world for the first time.

Sight and Sound’s review goes into much more detail about the film’s plot and how it was made:

The 18-year-old director was fascinated by the media coverage of the Naderi family and their imprisoned children and contacted them immediately. This being film-friendly Iran, she was able to involve all members of the family, various neighbours and the authorities (as well as several members of her own family) in a fictional, semi-improvised recreation of the twins’ experience that was shot in a couple of weeks while they were still in the process of acclimatising to the outside world. (Mount, 1999)

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I knew very little about the film before watching it, I wanted to go in with as few assumptions as possible, so I was stunned to find out that it was a semi-documentary based around real events in which the actors play themselves. The whole film is suffused with an unsettling atmosphere, one that derives from never really understanding the motives of the characters that Makhmalbaf presents; the way that she draws such interesting performances from her subjects is impressive.

It was fascinating to watch with an eye to alternative ways of creating and presenting documentary footage. The use of video at the start of The Apple, is an endearing choice that was forced on Makhmalbaf by equipment delays.

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. (Lehrer, 1999)

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In the interview in which Makhmalbaf talks about her use of video, she also discusses the process of shooting and how her deep knowledge of her subjects enabled her to allow them to improvise, because she already knew what they’d say.

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… 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. (Lehrer, 1999)

She continues, going further in discussing whether she sees the film as documentary or fiction.

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… 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. (Lehrer, 1999)

It’s an intoxicating mix, an uncanny and powerful story becomes even more so, because we believe it to be true.

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This blending of fact and fiction, documentary and narrative, has become a hallmark of critically acclaimed Iranian cinema. Indeed, The Apple seems to conform neatly to the formula identified in Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution (Mirbakhtyar, 2006) to target films specifically at foreign film festivals:

[this formula] is built on the use of a real or semi-real event (often an isolated case that could happen anywhere in the world, but it is turned into a hot and critical social issue in the film), with the people actually involved in the story play themselves. (Mirbakhtyar, 2006 p162)

Indeed, Makhmalbaf herself highlights the fact that the film’s story could happen anywhere in the world.

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. (Lehrer, 1999)

The Apple also seems to conform to another trope of Iranian art house film, in that it offers no direct political criticism, instead remaining apparently impartial and ambiguous. Writing in The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (Tapper, 2002) Azadeh Farahmand highlights the importance of this political ambiguity in achieving international success by referring to the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami:

Past experience has shown that pro-IRI propaganda films have little chance of success in film festivals. This gives a filmmaker with an eye on the international market an additional reason to avoid sensitive subjects. In other words, the political escapism in Kiarostami’s films is a facilitating, rather than a debilitating, choice, one which caters to the film festival taste for high art and restrained politics. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p99)

It could be said that the then 18 year-old Makhmalbaf would have had little knowledge of the foibles of Western film critics, except that her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who edited The Apple), is one of Iran’s most celebrated film directors who’s been lauded at several international festivals including Berlin, Cannes and Venice.

But is any of this a bad thing? Does the fact that her film conforms to tropes which some see as detrimental to Iranian national cinema mean that The Apple is less interesting, less worthy of watching? I’m not sure that I can answer that question. It drew me in and pushed me to question what I was seeing and hearing, which is one of the traits that I love most in cinema. Perhaps after I’ve watched more Iranian cinema The Apple will begin to seem derivative. But I can’t say that The Apple is deserving of the criticism leveled at some Iranian films by Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution, that they present a warped view of their subjects, constructed specifically to repulse Western audiences as “misleading images of the people and the culture, meant to impress and shock audiences with horrific stories” (Mirbakhtyar, 2006 p161). Instead The Apple presents much more complex characters in a story which doesn’t conform to Iranian or Western archetypes of what cinema is, or what it should be.

References

Lehrer, J., (1999) Samira Makhmalbaf: God and Satan in “The Apple”, Los Angeles: IndieWire, Available from: http://www.indiewire.com/article/samira_makhmalbaf_god_and_satan_in_the_apple [Accessed on 13 May 2016]

Makhmalbaf, S., (1998) The Apple, MK2 Productions

Mirbakhtyar, S., (2006) Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution, London: McFarland & Co

Mount, J., (1999) The Apple, BFI, Available from: http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/2 [Accessed on 13 May 2016]

Tapper, R., (2002) The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, London: I. B. Tauris

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