Tehran-born Samira Makhmalbaf enjoyed a cameo, aged eight, in her father Mohsen’s film The Cyclist (1987), quit school aged 15, and a few years later worked as assistant to her father on Sokout (1998), from which she used the leftover filmstock to make her own feature debut The Apple (or Sib), written and edited by her father. All this is important, not only as a testament to just how young Makhmalbaf was when her filmmaking talents ripened, but also because The Apple is concerned with a very different sort of father-daughter relationship, to which Makhmalbaf’s own status serves as a subtle counterpoint and corrective. That the film is based on a genuine cause célèbre in Iran, and has the actual family in effect (re)playing themselves, just adds to the strange frisson of exploitation created by Makhmalbaf’s merger of extreme realism and overt symbolism.
For all their lives, 12-year-old twin daughters Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi have been kept locked away at home in a Tehran suburb by their elderly, impoverished father Ghorban and their blind mother Soghra (whose entire face remains completely hidden behind her chador). Illiterate, malnourished, unwashed and infantilised, the girls are finally taken into care after a petition from concerned neighbours attracts the attention of social worker Azizeh Mohamadi. Securing a promise from Ghorban that he will stop keeping his daughters behind bars, Azizeh allows them to return home – where Ghorban immediately locks them up again. Stung, however, by the dishonour that sensational media coverage of the story is bringing upon his family, Ghorban ever so gradually begins to change his household’s arrangements – and when Azizeh visits again, she not only lets the girls out of the house and into the neighbourhood streets, but also finds a way for Ghorban to be freed by both his daughters and himself.
Where films like Flowers in the Attic (1987), Bad Boy Bubby (1993) and Dogtooth (2009) show little sympathy for the parents who become jailers to their own children, Ghorban is never demonised in The Apple, but rather shown to be a pious man and loving father, no less (although differently) imprisoned by the poverty of his education, by the sexual attitudes that he has absorbed in his own childhood, and by the inertia of circumstance. Not that he is let entirely off the hook, as his conduct is plainly condemned by his neighbourhood community, the newspapers and Azizeh herself – but Makhmalbaf, like Azizeh, is able to see beyond Ghorban to the societal pressures that have created him, and so to open up this rather particular story into an allegory of Iran’s longed-for emergence from repressive tradition into a more liberated modernity (especially for women).
If humanity had to eat forbidden fruit to get out of Paradise (literally, ‘walled enclosure’, from the ancient Iranian language Avestan), then so too it is Massoumeh and Zahra’s first ever bite of an apple, given to them while in the care of the Welfare Department, that coincides with their freedom from domestic imprisonment. This newfound taste for apples will also lead them to their first friendship with a boy, and introduce them to commercial and social exchange – and by the end Ghorban and even Soghra will have accepted apples proffered to them, and moved outside the walls of their home to the different, somewhat frightening world beyond. And so, like the book of Genesis to which it alludes, The Apple dramatises the beginnings of a new life, flavouring its hopes for the future with a certain bittersweetness for what has been left behind.
© Anton Bitel