At Five in the Afternoon

Director: Samira Makhmalbaf

(Iran-France| 2003. English subtitles. Colour. 105 mins.)

The world media agenda may have moved on, but Samira Makhmalbaf’s third feature underlines the point that all is not happy ever after in post-Taliban Afghanistan. At its most basic level, this is a sobering documentary record of a country reduced to ruins and apparently left to its own devices, where refugees throng in blasted-out Kabul with only the barest of food and facilities. What freedom does mean though, is a gradual liberalisation of the previous regime’s brutally strict repression of women: teenage girls are free to go to school again, and we follow one student dreaming of becoming her country’s first female prime minister. Her devout Muslim father however, typifies the unyielding attitudes of many Afghani men, whose hearts and minds will evidently not change overnight. In the meantime, longing and anxiety hang in the air. . . .
Although there’s a skeletal episodic narrative following one family’s precarious existence, this is a more exploratory affair than Makhmalbaf’s previous work (The Apple, Blackboards), encompassing the bitter comedy of misunderstandings with a French UN soldier, the pointed visual absurdity of sheltering inside the shell of a wrecked aircraft, and the artful melancholy of an extended Tarkovsky-ish sequence inside the desolate colonnades of an abandoned building. Like the Lorca poem from which the film takes its title, it’s a case of shaping poetic moments whose resonance broadens out to encompass a whole society in turmoil, and the degree to which this gifted 23-year-old Iranian succeeds in her aims is remarkable.

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