A dirge for lost heritage
"Five In The Afternoon"... of youthful dreams.
"FIVE IN the Afternoon" (Iran, 2003), winner of the Golden Peacock at IFFI 2003, shows how Samira Makhmalbaf draws her ``strength from friends, music and poetry.''
The desolation of a fanatically ravaged land, its desertscapes and ruined monuments bursting with refugees, is set in a time of youthful dreams and friendships, songs of lament, and the poetry of death.
The title is from Federico Lorca's poem dedicated to a Spanish matador gored to death by a black bull at ``that fatal five in the afternoon."
Lorca's images are of white sheet, lime, coffin, bones, festering gangrene and `wounds burning like suns'. They become powerful motifs for the Taliban-ravaged land, which was a shambles even after the fall of tyranny.
Though the filmmaker's own stand is obvious, she is mature enough to stay out of the frame, letting the characters unravel their experiences at their own pace. An endearing humour lights up some scenes, which however, cannot drown a note of despair too deep for wails.
The story is simple. In the process of trying to realise her potential as a human being, young Nogreh discovers that the declaration of democracy in post-Taliban Afghanistan is by no means a guarantor of freedom for women. Her society is still hidebound. The extremist father will not allow schooling, or the discarding of the veil. She has to resort to subterfuges to attend classes. Her brother will never return, the sister-in-law has no milk to feed her baby. Finally, their horse dies, and the child that perishes too has to be buried in an unmarked desert grave.
The homeless trio try to reach Khandahar through the dry landscape teeming with Afghans returning from exile in neighbouring countries. Their motherland is too poor, arid and ravaged to support them. The father wants to protect the young women from close contact with the men. His constant refrain is that the land is full of blasphemers and infidels after the fall of the Taliban, and sinful women with uncovered faces.
He insists that the women should disguise their voices by inserting a finger into their mouths when they speak, even under the burqa Otherwise they will tempt the menfolk to sin.
As in Lorca's verses, the film too depicts the physical and moral collapse of a land.
Education is the key to survival. Samira's school scenes are brilliantly orchestrated, the girls debating on how they would change laws and society if they became Heads of State.
There are doubts about how women can combine politics with home duties, but also the examples of Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. However, the girls are confident they can prevent war and crimes against women and children.
Nogreh changes her old shoes for white high heels and casts aside the veil every time she goes to school; a symbol of regaining her identity as a free human being and a woman with choices. Music is seen as a devil's aid in a camp where the old man objects to songs on the radio.
Wacky motifs accent the shocks. The refugees shelter in a broken aircraft with a poster of actress Kajol glinting in the sun; Nogreh's `election' photographs plastered in the ruins; the waxing moon witnessing holocausts in indifferent silence; the mullah making his way to a Taliban meeting ignorant that the regime has fallen; the final visual of the family disappearing behind the dunes with a last flutter of hens' wings. Such moments offset the discontinuities in moods and visuals.
The film is a dirge for a heritage lost beyond reclamation. Does it suggest that the festering gangrene is fatal, beyond healing?
The filmmaker leaves the viewer free to think, feel and question. The West has found the film pessimistic.
The Asian viewer may see it as a reflective caesura. G. R.
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