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At Five in the Afternoon

by Christopher Bourne

One of the most striking passages of Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon (2003) consists of the film’s central character Nogreh (Agheleh Rezaie) simply walking. However, there is a world of emotional weight to these echoing footsteps. These footsteps are made by Nogreh’s stylish white shoes, which she wears while walking in town after her school lessons, conducted away from the prying eyes and harsh judgment of her ultratraditionalist father (Abdolgani Yousefrazi). Nogreh’s ritual of changing from her dusty and tattered black shoes into bright white ones represents in concise visual terms Afghanistan’s change for women from the world of full-length burqas and lives hidden away from the public in ignorance, to the relatively looser and more hopeful post-Taliban Afghanistan.

In this scene, as Nogreh walks through a large bombed-out structure where their father has brought her family to live, in his constant quest to flee the “blasphemy” he sees everywhere, she repeatedly stops and starts, as her heels echo through the cavernous space. This is near the end of the film, and the hopeful idealism of this strikingly beautiful woman’s ambition to one day become Afghanistan’s first woman president has been badly shaken. Her ideals have been tested from both the incredulous and mocking statements of those she has expressed her ambitions to, and the increasingly desperate circumstances of her nomadic family life. After stopping and starting, she suddenly stomps her feet and takes her shoes off, kicking them away. She then hopscotches the rest of the way barefoot. This is a rather sad scene, and quite a pessimistic rendering of her disillusionment. Nogreh has, at least for the moment, put aside her hope of changing the situation of women like herself, and as evidenced by the hopscotching, has retreated into a childlike state, as an attempt to escape the hopelessness that now awaits her.

Samira Makhmalbaf’s third film, premiering in New York in the “Film Comment Selects” series at the Walter Reade Theater, is set about a year after the fall of the Taliban and captures the chaos of the aftermath of this repressive regime. Makhmalbaf explores this unique landscape, consisting of various, and often conflicting, groups: refugees; women finally openly pursuing education; and an older male generation who wishes to halt the changes that are occurring. This older generation is represented by two characters in the film. One is Nogreh’s father, who constantly laments that “blasphemy rules in Kabul.” At one point, he throws two young women out of his carriage for removing their veils from their faces. Later in the film, the family meets an old traveler on the road, who can also be said to represent the fear of change of this older generation. This old man still believes that the Taliban remains in power, and is traveling to Kabul to voice his opposition to turning Osama bin Laden over to the U.S. “Bin Laden is our guest,” he says, who should not be turned over to the American “infidels.” After Nogreh’s father tells him he is too late, the traveler declares that he will remain in the desert forever. However, it is a testament to Makhmalbaf’s humanistic generosity toward her characters that these retrograde men are not painted as simple villains, but instead are portrayed with a measure of compassion and humor. Even though Nogreh’s father continues to cling to his religious ideologies of male dominance, his irrelevance is symbolized by the fact that he is reduced to lamenting his troubles to his horse.

Samira Makhmalbaf’s previous films The Apple and Blackboards exhibited a gift for composition and an intimacy with her characters, and this film is no exception. Poetry and music are used in strikingly original ways here. The use of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem which provides the film with its title is quite provocative, evoking a gay Spanish poet in a land that would seem to be the polar opposite of an environment where such a figure could emerge. A Pakistani refugee poet (Rezi Mohabi) introduces the poem to Nogreh, who whispers it to herself in the cavernous ruin later in the film. Also, the music of Mohammad Reza Darvishi figures prominently, especially in an amusing scene where Nogreh’s father is scandalized by a neighbor’s playing of this music, who responds to the father’s complaints by increasing the volume and openly mocking his objections. The music on the radio actually begins playing over the previous scene, where the women Nogreh’s father has thrown out of his carriage run in the desert, connecting his view that women should conceal themselves with his hatred of music, both of which represent personal and artistic expressions, which cannot be easily controlled.

Makhmalbaf’s impressive and memorable imagery, effectively capturing the simultaneous harshness and beauty of Afghanistan’s landscape, and her obvious sympathy with the people who struggle to survive there, makes this film a singular experience. The hope for a new Afghanistan is encapsulated in the sea of veiled women in the outdoor classroom, the vivid colors a visual expression of the opening of their world.

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