Samira Makhmalbaf: Educationalist

Over the last fifteen years or so, there has been a buzz around Iranian cinema, albeit arguably quite a modish interest in a country otherwise so hidden from view. Praise has been heaped upon the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Asgar Farhadi, and the Makhmalbaf family for their contributions to the ‘New Iranian Cinema’ (see Tapper, 2006). But rather than treating this emergence as a national phenomenon, I want to look at the work of one of these directors, Samira Makhmalbaf, and the way that she addresses a particular question as an enduring concern: what is education?

By contrast, there has never been a great a buzz around educational theory – it has conferences in the place of festivals, and its celebrities are probably fonder of sandals and libraries, than sunglasses and limelight. But in terms of theme and content, the worlds of film and education are often engaged in a dialogue which is less about analysing what the one has to offer the other, and more about the ways in which one really is the other. I want to explore how the films of Samira Makhmalbaf might have something to teach their audience, simply in terms of experiencing film in a way that is unfamiliar.

In the films of Samira Makhmalbaf, there is a correspondence to be found with both educational themes and interests that have been commonplace in Europe since the Enlightenment, as well as with cinematic influences and traditions outside of Iran. But this is not to say that the thinking behind these films comes entirely from elsewhere, just as it would not be helpful to see them as having emerged from within a socio-cultural vacuum. Despite the political isolation of Iran during Samira Makhmalbaf’s upbringing, I think there is evidence to suggest that both her father’s influence, and the country’s film industry as a political and diplomatic battlefield, allowed for exposure to all sorts of viewpoints on society, both progressive and traditional.

I want to look at the peculiar qualities of Samira Makhmalbaf’s films that make them both contextually-situated and in dialogue with ideas that engage a much wider audience than just niche cine-philes. This is because I believe that what is educational about Samira Makhmalbaf’s films is the experience of watching them, rather than anything specific she is trying to explain. And the experience of watching a film does not require an understanding of the context, but rather demands of that context that it invite understanding. Herein lies the strength and, to some extent, enigma, of Samira’s films.

The Makhmalbaf family: an education in film

Samira Makhmalbaf was born into a film-making family, and in many ways was raised to see the world through a cinematic lens. At age seven, she starred in her father Mohsen’s film The Cyclist (1987), and at age fourteen she left formal education altogether to apply herself to filmmaking, under her father’s instruction. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, himself dissatisfied with the provision of non-ideological film education by Iran’s higher education institutions, had set up the Makhmalbaf Film House, a school whose first pupils were mostly members of the family – less an act of nepotism than of convenience, given the difficulties of gaining formal recognition for such an experiment. And, educationally speaking, the Film House was certainly experimental, incorporating regular exercise, painting, and music in month-long intensive studies alongside the immersion in technical film skills. In Mohsen’s own words:

‘Our curriculum was not limited to cinema, it also included parts life and art. For example in sports, it consisted of cycling, swimming and skating. A filmmaker needs to be physically strong. From everyday life, we instructed on driving, traveling alone outside the country, urban navigation, cooking, computer science, and foreign language, as a filmmaker needs methods of communication.’
(www.makhmalbaf.com)

The holistic education described here is reminiscent of the gymnasia of ancient Greece, in which intellectual pursuits accompanied the development of physical prowess, or of the liberal educational methods pioneered by Robert Owen in Scotland, in which music and the natural environment played as strong a role as grammatical and numeric literacy. In all these instances, there is a specific end goal in sight: for the Greeks, discussions about morality would enhance, but were subservient to, their sporting abilities; for Owen, a well-rounded child made for a more conscientious worker and citizen; for Mohsen Makhmalbaf, every aspect of education was for the greater good of cinema.

Samira seems to have absorbed some of this philosophy, but also to have interpreted it in her own way. Whilst Mohsen has often pursued an overtly political aesthetic in his work1, Samira appears always to have erred more towards the suspension of her own politics, to allow the politics of others to speak for themselves. She has said that she tries “to remember not to judge, not to think that you know everything, and not to decide before seeing someone” (There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond, p.165). What she seems to have gained from her unique education, then, is the idea that making films is not so much about representing her own view of the world (in the depiction of social injustice, or moral causes, or particular people), but about allowing the world to represent itself, often in conflicting and confusing ways. Amateur actors, different languages, ideological antagonism – these are the essential components of a cinema that refuses to judge (albeit in a manner that self-consciously acknowledges the selection of content and location as forms of judgment), and refuses to distinguish between art and life, as per Mohsen’s pedagogy.

None of these components should be seen as exclusive to Samira Makhmalbaf (and/or other members of the Makhmalbaf family): contemporary Iranian cinema is often characterised by elliptical dialogue, sparse poetic landscapes, and the use of amateur actors – not least because of issues to do with censorship that frequently prevent, for example, direct criticism of political parties, the depiction of the private sphere, and the representation of women in certain ways or environments (Farahmand; Haghighi; Lahiji, in Tapper, 2006). To try and romanticise Iranian cinema outside of these limitations is to ignore a very conscious effort on the part of its directors to respond to, and work around, them. But I think they each do this in their individual ways: the geographical and philosophical remoteness of Kiarostami’s films, for example, make them difficult for both audiences and censors to reach; Jafar Panahi dealt with the frustration of censorship by making a film about it; Mohsen Makhmalbaf has defiantly used his name and notoriety to tackle censorship head on – including opting to sell the family house (in consultation with the other members) rather than edit the film A Moment of Innocence (1996). Equally, Samira has developed her own style, which is designed to challenge norms from within certain limitations.

The Apple (1998)

Makhmalbaf’s first film touches on a theme that was a favourite of Enlightenment philosophers and physicians, from Rousseau to Philippe Pinel: the feral child. The fictional depiction of children growing in a ‘state of nature’ has precedents as far back as Livy and Plutarch in recounting the tale of Romulus and Remus; it takes a philosophical turn in the Hayy ibn Yaqhdan (or Improvement of Human Reason) by Ibn Tufail; and the latter became just one of the influences for Rousseau’s Émile, a novel that similarly traced the benefits of reason as a way of suppressing some of the developing child’s baser natural instincts. Two appearances of children who had actually (apparently) experienced a feral upbringing generated a further craze for psychologising the “wild child” as a curiosity capable of revealing much about how humans develop in isolation. Both Victor of Aveyron (c.1788-1828) and Kaspar Hauser (c.1812-1833) were the subjects of educational experiments by their physicians to try and reclaim their linguistic abilities and rational capacity, though often without success. In the twentieth century, these stories were given new life and meaning by the directors François Truffaut and Werner Herzog, in their respective films The Wild Child (1970) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

Makhmalbaf’s story is not just also based on a true account; the vast majority of the actors in the film are playing themselves, only a few days after its actual events occurred. The Apple begins with a complaint made to Iran’s welfare department by a number of neighbours that two girls, Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi, are being held prisoner in their home by their father and blind mother, and have never seen the light of day, nor have been able to interact with other local children. As such, they are not ‘wild’ in the same ways as Victor and Kaspar, but are inarticulate and possibly suffering from physical issues as a result of poor care and nutrition. After an intervention to fully remove the girls from their home, and to clean them and cut their hair, the social workers agree to let them return to their parents on the condition that they are given greater freedom. The father is reluctant, but once a social worker has him locked on the inside of his own home, the girls are free to explore outside their home, with all the wonders and the dangers it poses. Without a coherent language to support them, their actions seem to be largely determined by instinct and trust.

Armed with these sensibilities, Massoumeh and Zahra stumble into a world whose social norms and principles of economic exchange have no meaning for them yet: just as with learning a language, the girls discover that ice creams, apples, watches, and hop-scotch all demand reciprocal gestures. Whether framed in terms of finance or friendship, these things are seen to be allegories of the passing of time, a loss of innocence, burgeoning self-knowledge and desire, language games, and the need to communicate. The viewer is invited to experience just how exciting and disorienting these events must be for the twins, and to think about how much of a child’s development is taken for granted.

Much attention has been given over to the politics of girls’ education addressed by the film (which in that respect serves as a precursor to At Five in the Afternoon). But there are many more complex existential, psychological and educational questions being posed which I think contribute greatly to Makhmalbaf’s role as an educationalist, as opposed to just a champion for educational rights.

The complexity partly arises out of the director’s refusal to reduce the central focus of any of these issues to one character: indeed, the titles of both The Apple and her next film, Blackboards, allude to her effort to draw the viewer away from this temptation, to provide symbols that are common to a number of characters at once, both the powerful and the vulnerable. The effect is to reveal the power and the vulnerability in everyone. A young boy dangles an apple on a string: is he teasing the girls with knowledge, or desire (as their father has feared and suspected)? He then tells them that if they want an apple they’ll have to come to the shop with him. In leading the girls out into the wider world (a public space of which they have no experience), the boy gives them no information about what to expect and how to make sense of it: apples are the only destination around which this journey revolves. When they make it to the shop, however, the boy is shown to be just as inexperienced as the twins, in being reminded that they can’t get apples without paying for them. The girls return to ask their captive father for the money, showing that independence does not mean freedom from interdependence.

In the final scene, the young boy is shown once again to be holding the apple on the end of a piece of string, this time dangling it above the head of the girls’ mother, who has ventured out of the house, and does not know what the object is that keeps evading her grasp. The apple is a symbol of the freedom that she has denied herself and tried to deny her daughters.

In her brother Maysam’s documentary about the making of Blackboards, Samira catches up with Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi, and finds their lives transformed by the experience of going to school: they are not just articulate, but high-achieving and ambitious. And yet the aim of The Apple – unlike, for example, Mohsen’s Afghan Alphabet (2002) – does not seem to have been to make a political point, to proselytize universal education. One of the many things that both fascinates and resonates in The Apple is the idea that education is really just the exposure to new experiences. Formal education perhaps provides a framework in which that exposure can begin to be examined and interpreted, but is nothing without that initial freedom to risk oneself in the world, just as the girls are shown to do, unaccompanied and unsure of themselves.

This freedom was offered to Samira as a young girl in the form of a camera: ‘They would give this camera to me, I took pictures, and we would analyse them’ (p.169). For Massoumeh and Zahra, freedom comes in many forms, but perhaps most poignantly in the form of the key with which they can either keep their father locked in the same house that he kept them prisoner, or let him out. With this freedom, the girls are shown to be (becoming) individuals in their own right, capable of making decisions for themselves, and learning from both the rewards and mistakes that result.

Blackboards (2000)

In the opening scene of Samira Makhmalbaf’s film Blackboards, a group of itinerant teachers with blackboards on their backs are travelling along the rocky wilds of Iran’s border with Iraq, in search of students. Suddenly, with the sound of gunfire, they huddle together in a tortoise formation until they realise the danger has passed. The story then follows two of the teachers’ ongoing efforts to sell their educational wares to unwilling characters along the way: child smugglers, elderly villagers, nomadic Kurds. What emerges from these frequently comic and often pathetic vignettes is a complete mismatch between the service that the teachers – Reeboir and Said – see themselves as being able to provide (i.e. a rudimentary introduction to literacies) and the benefits that their potential students might accrue as a result. Reeboir tries to convince some children acting as mules carrying illegal goods over the border that learning to read would give them the advantage of being able to understand a newspaper; Said tries to persuade the wife he has acquired from force of circumstance (her father is dying of a urinary infection and needs to marry her off) to learn to read the phrase ‘I love you’ off the blackboard whilst she occupies herself with tending to her son’s basic needs.

In these instances, the idea that education is self-evidently and inherently ‘good’ is finding it hard to communicate its value in a terrain in which survival is the only common tongue. Samira has indicated that her point of departure in this film was not to prove education’s usefulness, but rather to demand of education that it prove itself other than useless:

‘…[t]he children have to smuggle every day from one country to another country to stay alive. They just want to be alive. To them, they feel education is useless. For the old people, the time for them to learn is over. They want to go back to their own country and die in their own country. So education also seems useless.’
(Interview with Anthony Kaufman, www.indiewire.com)

Instead, didactical instruction seems to speak a language whose authority and necessity, personified by the teachers, does not invite others to respond either to them, or to their own situation. In short, there is no dialogue, either between educator and educated, or between the educated and the content and circumstances of the education they are trying to provide. After all, just being able to read a newspaper is not going to provide either income or escape from forced labour; knowing how to recite ‘I love you’ from a blackboard is not going to commit the reader to the person from whom they learnt the words.

Again, Samira Makhmalbaf seems to have nuanced educational issues by opening them up further, rather than narrowing them down to an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. She has said of her choice of subject matter for the film that she ‘thought that this was a very open subject, that this can be very surreal and at the same time very naturalistic, it can carry so many social and humanistic meanings’ (quoted in Wood, p.162). Blackboards challenges any universal approach through scenes that are carefully attentive to misunderstandings, lack of communication, and the need to listen as well as to talk (by necessity part of the director’s own method, given that she did not speak the language in which the film was being made).

Samira has summed up her approach by saying that ‘the important thing for me was to deal with the way we fail each other in our relationships and the way in which we relate to each other’ (quoted in Wood, 2006, p.163). It is the two aspects to this approach that must be emphasised if the educational importance of the films is to be understood: yes, people are always failing to understand each other, which makes universal approaches to understanding any one situation problematic; at the same time, the rewards of life are to be found in relating to one another, however frustrating that process often is.

In one scene, for example, an old man asks one of the teachers, Saïd, to read his son’s letter to him, written from prison in Iraq, where he has been fighting. Saïd explains that he can’t read either Arabic or Turkish, but the old man insists until Saïd resolves to offer a conjectured summary based upon the conditions in which such a letter might have been written, and appeasing the expectations of the father. In this instance, the teacher has not instructed the old man in anything new, but (whether the viewer agrees with his actions or not) has responded to another’s need for comfort, and his ability to provide that comfort is granted him only by his perceived educational authority. It is Saïd that learns in this situation, whilst also having to recognise his (the teacher’s) own shortcomings. Meanwhile, the other teacher, Reeboir, ignites the interest of one of the boys when he discovers that they share the same name (which, he explains, means ‘He who walks’, or, ‘The traveller’). The rest of their narrative sees the boy learning to spell the letters in his name, culminating in his copying its scripted version on the blackboard to his delight – immediately before he is shot by border guards. The elation at being able to inscribe one’s own stamp on the world is not one that can be felt totally by anyone other than the boy himself, but the experience can be partially communicated to the viewer via his response.

In Blackboards, just as Makhmalbaf’s teacher has to blunder his way through translating the letter based solely on assumptions about the old man’s family background, so the viewer has to make certain assumptions about context, narrative, and language that will be supported by cinematic technique and subtitling in order for there to be any engagement (i.e. if I as a viewer am to get anything from the film, I must believe that I am invited to at least participate in its conversation, even if it is a depiction of difficulties of which I have no direct experience). There is something to be learnt, even if the viewer is not told directly what it is. And this is because the director herself retains a sense of curiosity throughout, whereby her questions are also those of the viewer: Who is the person being educated? What does he or she need from education? How is it possible to know? Can people become free through education? What does that freedom look like? And also, how free am I in being able to assess these issues?

At Five in the Afternoon (2003)

Samira’s 2003 film, At Five in the Afternoon, returned ostensibly to the above questions, but this time situating them in post-invasion Afghanistan, rather than her native Iran. The change in location is not necessarily meant to wrong-foot the audience; the director’s films often seem to embrace any zone of desolation or conflict, if only to emphasise the conflicting emotions and experiences her characters are undergoing (it takes its title from a poem by Federico García Lorca that explores similar themes). At Five in the Afternoon is no different from The Apple or Blackboards in this respect.

But where the girls in The Apple were the object of a struggle between the authorities and their family, whilst being the subjects of their own personal discovery, and the teachers of Blackboards were on a difficult journey to discover just how much they had to learn as well as impart, the protagonist of At Five in the Afternoon is a highly individualised character who more closely resembles the director herself: curious, tenacious, ambitious, and retaining an unfazed serenity in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Nogreh is a young woman who, beneath her burqa, is motivated to secure an education for herself that she hopes could see her become Afghanistan’s first female president.

The film would be fairly one-dimensional if it played upon the simpler binary oppositions between dogmatic patriarchy and democratic progress. Instead, Samira creates a sympathetic character out of the father who has insisted on her quranic education; the landscape combines both terrible poverty and images of ruins that augur great renewal; the blue of the women’s burqas is shot with a poetry that is probably not meant to aestheticize the garment or what it symbolises, but to caution against automatic assumptions of subjugation about those that it covers; and the white shoes that Nogreh changes into when she sneaks into her more progressive classes ask again long-unresolved questions about the reconcilability of femininity and feminism.

At Five in the Afternoon does engage with the question of girls’ and women’s’ education, but it is as much an education in womanhood that is less about pontificating than it is about challenging assumptions. The film almost defiantly ignores the presence of NATO and other Western troops, considering more the legacy left by the Taliban and the ways in which their conservatism proved catastrophic for women to be recognised as women, whatever that might mean. Nogreh’s sister-in-law, Leylomah, becomes the personification of this disenfranchisement, in that she is solely concerned with the feeding of her baby, but is so hungry herself that she has stopped lactating. With her husband not having returned to support her, and her son in danger of dying, she threatens not to be able to continue the family line, becoming both victim and symbol of the ideological doctrine that prevented her from performing a more self-sustaining role in society and devastated the country. Contrasted with Nogreh’s endless discussions and debates with the people she meets, it is Leylomah’s isolation that shows her to be lacking in educational experience, rather than the provision of institutional learning.

Conclusion

What I hope has emerged from this brief review of Samira Makhmalbaf’s films, is that they have much to teach the viewer, as long as the viewer does not already have expectations about what they will learn from them (i.e. about Iran, about female directors, about pedagogy). The unusual thing about the films is that every time they seem to be gesturing in a particular direction, they always offer at least the consideration of going in another. Whilst ambiguity and alternative possibility have metaphysical properties here, they perform a utilitarian function also: as mentioned above, issues of legal prevention, censorship, and governmental pressure have demanded a resourcefulness of Iranian filmmakers that a more relaxed political environment might not have cultivated. Layers of interpretation have to be created so that attacks can be counteracted. I believe this to be true of Samira’s films, and have therefore tried to limit my own understanding to a common theme of education, to suggest how that theme is not just figurative, but brings out an educational element to the films also. That element resides in the idea that education is possibly more about experience than it is about information (i.e. the classroom, the teacher-pupil relation), and that experience cannot be regimented or anticipated in the way that a school timetable, for example, can.

Suggesting that people can learn from film in this way (i.e. by not knowing what there will be to learn) is possibly as unusual as suggesting to some people that Iranian film might have something to teach others about the characterisation of women – and yet it is not just Samira Makhmalbaf who has raised the prospect of the latter; Asghar Farhadi’s films are populated with female protagonists who are not only just as complex as the men, but are as morally ambiguous in a way that few other characters on screen at the moment are. Film as an educational experience, then, is simply about an openness to the possibility of learning, which Makhmalbaf herself adopts in her filmmaking: ‘Always I try to remember not to judge, not to think that you know everything’ (quoted in Said, p.165). I have argued that part of Samira’s curious sensibility in this respect might lie in her own education, in which the divisions between life, education, and art were always porous. And in everything she has said about her films, there is always an insistence on the idea that learning is a never-ending process, that the making of art is part of that process, punctuating it with self-expression. Her words, therefore, are perhaps the best to capture this unique (educational) philosophy:

‘I want to continue making movies, but I also want to live and to continue to learn. I’ve learned that though it’s good to create it is also good not to try and force it, to sometimes not to create and to simply explore.’
(ibid.)

1 See, for example, Kandahar (2001).

Bibliography

Farahmand, A. (2006).Perspectives on Recent (International Acclaim for) Iranian Cinema. In Tapper, R. The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Haghighi, A. (2006). Politics and Cinema in Post-Revolutionary Iran: An Uneasy Relationship. In Tapper, R. The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Kaufman, A. (2002). Interview: Samira Makhmalbaf paints it “Blackboards”. Retrieved 12 February, 2014 fromhttp://www.indiewire.com/article/interview_samira_makhmalbaf_ paints_it_blackboards
Lahiji, S. (2006). Chaste Dolle and Unchaste Dolls: Women in Iranian Cinema since 1979. In Tapper, R. The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Said, S. F. (2009). ‘The Girl Behaves Against It’: An Interview with Samira Makhmalbaf. In Columpar, C. & Mayer, S.There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond. Michigan: Wayne State University Press.
Tapper, R. (2006). Introduction. In Tapper, R. The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Wood, J. (2006). Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview. London: Wallflower Press

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