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SAMIRA MAKHMALBAF Director & ScreenwriterAged only 8, the daughter of film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf already acted in her father's film The Cyclist. Between 1994 and 1997, she studied film at a private college, and made two shorts: Desert and Painting Schools (a documentary).
In 1997, she worked as an assistant to the director on Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Silence and directed her first feature film The Apple (Cannes Festival 1998 - Un Certain Regard) which was awarded numerous prizes at international festivals.
In 2000, she directed Blackboards (Cannes Festival 2000 - Official Competition), which won the Special Jury Prize.
She was one of eleven directors to contribute a short film to 11'09''01 - SEPTEMBER 11, which screened in Competition at the 2001 Venice Film Festival.
After making Blackboards in Kurdistan, what drew you to Afghanistan for At Five in the Afternoon?
- We live in a world where a single attack on the US has led in less than two years to the collapse of two countries. If everything is so inter-related, how can the subjects of my films only relate to the place in which I happened to be born? Today, one's homeland is the place for which ones' heart beats. In the past two years, the world's mass media have spoken endlessly about my country's neighbours. So as an Iranian situated between the two tragedies of Afghanistan and Iraq, how could I have remained only a silent observer?
When your father made Kandahar, the September 11th attack had not yet occurred and no one was talking about Afghanistan. Yet in the past two years, the country has rarely left the media spotlight. Aren't you concerned that the world audience might be weary of the subject?
- When my father made KANDAHAR, before September 11th, people would ask why he focused his attention on such an insignificant country. September 11th proved that cinema can pre-empt television in transmitting information.
Of course, there's a difference between KANDAHAR and AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON.
KANDAHAR was an attempt to tell the world about a forgotten country.
My film tries to correct the false information generated by the frenetic vortex of politics and mass media. Radio and television constitute the official voice of power, while cinema is the only broadcast medium where the author can voice the spirit of nations denied a platform. We understand the spirit of India from Satyajit Ray's films not from music video clips on satellite TV. Ken Loach presents the voice of the British people while the BBC or Tony Blair can only be the spokespersons of England's official politics.
The role of the mass media is first and foremost the expansion of world-wide ignorance. Sometimes events in one place are emphasised to deflect attention from important news elsewhere. Coverage often goes from everything to nothing. First 100% of the news concerns Afghanistan or Iraq for example. Then it's back to zero percent and we're supposed to accept that all problems in that region have been solved.
And the information is superficial. Several years ago the Americans made a movie called RAMBO IN AFGHANISTAN. Rambo arrived and rescued the country. The pictures that the world media and especially American media broadcast on Afghanistan and Iraq told nothing but the same story. When an Iraqi filmmaker presents a work on what went on in Iraq in the past three decades, then I will be able to understand what kind of place Iraq is and has been, and what it meant to live as an Iraqi. That person will be the representative of the spirit of the Iraqis, who at present are without a spokesperson.
The mass media bombard us with a single view, with clichés, and as news take the place of analysis, little by little everyone starts to think like Bush. The only differences in analysis are born from conflicts of interest between certain Western countries with regards to the Third World. I still remember from childhood how French-made military airplanes that were sold to Saddam destroyed the house of my grandmother's neighbours and killed my playmates.
The amount of news transmitted to the global audience by the mass media equals that of the limits of propaganda of a politician's re-election campaign. Therefore, after all that media tumult, I went to Afghanistan to understand more fully the situation of its people through the medium of cinema.
How well do you know Afghanistan?
- My first experience of Afghanistan goes back to my childhood, when I was eight years old and acted in the film THE CYCLIST. I got to know the Afghan immigrants on the set in Iran. While working on the film I travelled to Pakistan, as far as the Afghanistan border. The memory has grown hazy, but I felt sympathy for the Afghans. Then, a little before the events of September 11th, I spent a month along the Iran - Afghanistan border photographing Afghanistan women. There, I realised the heavy burden of the dominant male culture, of poverty and homelessness on the Afghans. With my father (who was shooting KANDAHAR) we hid women and children who were dying of hunger in our vans and minibuses and took them to hospital for treatment. Some of them would surely have died. I understand that my position gave me a responsibility towards these women and children. Then came September 11th. The media bombarded me too. I couldn't stand staying still so I travelled through Afghanistan. The result was a short film, GOD, CONSTRUCTION AND DESTRUCTION that became part of the film 11'09"01. I returned to Afghanistan three more times, on one occasion staying the summer through the autumn of 2002. I also ran into problems, the most important of which was the unsuccessful kidnapping attempt on my younger sister Hana. AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON was filmed during autumn 2002, in the outskirts of Kabul.
How was Afghanistan at that time?
- My feeling in the summer and autumn in 2002 was that the women in Afghanistan seemed more liberated by the new situation. This was a year after the fall of the Taliban. They were able to come out of their homes to work or attend school. Yet, they were still afraid of the return of the Taliban. You can see this fear quite clearly in the documentary JOY OF MADNESS directed by my 14 year old sister. Then, just like now, Afghanistan was beset by many economic and cultural problems. Some believed that the Americans had simply removed the Taliban regime which they themselves had put in power. More than one million homeless people had returned to Kabul full of hope, mostly from Pakistan and some from Iran: they found the city in ruins and were forced to live on the streets. Since they had no work, they were suffering from extreme hunger and looking for the first opportunity to emigrate again.
What were their reactions to the film you were making?
- These were the people in my film. At first they were afraid of the camera because they had no notion of cinema - or if they did, only the Indian or Pakistani musicals. When I asked girls and women if they were willing to perform in my film they would blush and run away. Later, I realised that the word "perform" in Afghanistan meant "dance" and it was against their traditional culture.