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At Five In The Afternoon
cast: Agheleh Rezaie, Abdolgani Yousefrazi, Razi Mohebi, and Marzieh Amiri

director: Samira Makhmalbaf

102 minutes (PG) 2003
widescreen ratio 16:9
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
There are moments in fictional film that are real and all for that magical. Like the elderly American Indian woman on the bay landing with the craggiest of faces and no notion of what acting entails or the florid dance patterns of the cigarette smoke between scripted interacting bodies in a backroom, the stutter that sounds better in the sentence or the accidental knock of a lamp in a scene that could not be acted. It is too entrancing, too powerful in its verity, might bring an early pique to proceedings, detract from the action, could be more than have been hoped for by the director who chooses to leave it in. In Samira Makhmalbaf's At Five In The Afternoon there is an unbeatable moment of that serendipity when a schoolgirl standing for 'president' makes mention of her dead father and brother, victims of the Taliban or the 2002 war in Afghanistan, and the grief catches up with her, inarguably real, beyond fakery. It is indisputably the director's incorporation of the actresses' personal history to the script and you would be inhuman not to be able to sense, feel and respond to it. It is not an isolated moment of the incontestably and unmatchable actual in a film undertaken as a challenge to make the first feature film in post-Taliban Afghanistan and purportedly in tribute to the women who survived it. It is a film cast with local people who had nary an idea of what cinema is never mind actor training.

The star of this lyrical film is the exquisite and entrancing Agheleh Rezaie, another find of the unexpected, again a non-actress. Her character is Nogreh, a young women, seeking an education and supporting dreams of becoming the president of Afghanistan while at the same time avoiding upset of her elderly father (Abdolgani Yousefrazi), a survivor and committer to the stern old ways. There is a sister, Leylomah (Marieh Amiri), with a sickly child and a missing truck driver husband, and the four live a refugee status in the ruins of a building, water scarce, becoming scarcer as more refugees, largely Pakistani, increase in number driving them from one shelter to the next. There is almost romantic interest for Nogreh, daring enough for Iranian cinema, potentially perilous for an Afghan 'actress', with the deceptively complacent Poet (Razi Mohebi), a refugee who has fled with his elderly mother, precious to her, two brothers having been lost in turn to the civil war in Pakistan and in the previous year's battles on the border with this country. The romanticism is only alluded to, one-sided, unrequited, never exhibited by Nogreh, obvious in Poet. She is, though, a spirited transgressor in other ways, boldly slipping on low-heeled shoes (as opposed to no-heeled) and unveiling herself for selected journeys through the streets to and from class, sending the emasculated old men of the old regime to the wall in appal.

It sounds grim but rarely is, each shot is beautiful enough to earn a gallery space, the dialogue is unexpected and often amusing, the behaviour of principals and the crowd interesting throughout. There is no fairytale ending however no matter how much you might wish it on the participants, but the downer conclusion is only a natural outcome, in accord with life always acceding to death. In Afghanistan, realistically, happiness is a more temporaneous still companion to anyone during or surviving the regime. To this end it reminds one of the final dissolutions of the wondrous Perfume Des Violetas or Ghost World, the eccentricities left behind for an uncertain next direction for its young heroine. Even though the ending disappoints, as the prodigious director is to relate in the accompanying interview, it would have been dishonest to have ended the film with a 'happily ever after'.

This is a film about the fortitude and resilience of Afghan women, indeed any woman living with severe social constraints and its aftermath. Dreams are as ungodly, none more so than the electoral fantasy, to be able to win over a people and be allowed to decide on their behalf. If it sounds unthinkable in such a constricted atmosphere for a young woman to find imaginable a president role, remember that Benezir Bhutto and Indira Ghandi had led neighbouring countries; the Taliban could bury most information but some factual currency is beyond containable. Nogreh's pursuit of those electoral qualities is amusing, enquiring of anyone who might provide her the answers, from new arrivals through to a French soldier and she is baffled by the lack of insight and interest others display in their respective democratic figureheads. Encountering Poet for the first time, her queries are met with, "I don't like politics. I prefer real life." Poet does later stump up and provide her a copy of with Hamid Karzai's inaugural speech and belays his worldliness to educate her where others are unable.

The family moves into a palace that is curiously otherwise unoccupied and for the film it becomes the venue for some of the most magical imagery. The devastated locations from outset to close are awesome, be they 'castle', common hovel or airplane husk the ruins are beautiful.

Agheleh Rexaie has a winning, benign smile. In fact she smiles with a down-turned mouth. She depicts loss, cheek and lovingness in that face and no emotion seems very far away from the other, so naturally experienced in all of them is she. The sadness that can be traced in that face is real, the actress being a 23-year-old teacher, mother of three and twice-over widow at the time of shooting. She looks older than her years and behaves younger than them, and she is bewitching on screen. When giving her speech to the class at Galeh school she exhibits the character's confessed degree of nervousness so well that it is either a terrific performance or real, borne out of inexperience and the possible chronological shooting, her assuredness otherwise in the film coming with the passage of the filming schedule. It is better than the flat performance Rexaie gave in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar, a film overly sung about, particularly seen so retrospectively of his daughter's third film. To maintain his reputation, father and daughter worked together on the screenplay for At Five In The Afternoon based on his novel, and the editing of the footage must have been a joy to him, the proud father. Samira is more demanding visually than her father was in Kandahar, a film prodigy and a feisty woman-child if the 38-minute interview or the 13 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage on the disc are anything to go by. In Jason Wood and Eileen Anipore's interview, Samira meaningfully expresses her wish to be true and respectful to her subjects, but she is a bit of a bossy-boots in the behind-the-scenes material and the impression, not hidden, is that the film is the most important thing to her, impatient on set with her 'actor' extras distant understanding of the process of making a film. Ironically, without the dictatorial edge you can't be a good director and in these circumstances it needed a particularly commanding and formidable nature to achieve what she has with At Five In The Afternoon.

Artificial Eye have a marvellous film here and there is a good supporting package though again, there is some difficulty navigating, with the highlighting of the direction of the material bodged leaving the viewer to fumble and find. It could be that faulty copies are being distributed to reviewers, no major problem as long as the disc can still be reviewed but it would put me off as a purchaser. Far more complicated packages are sailed through, Artificial Eye needs to get this right, particularly when they are handling one of the finest, most remarkable films of the year, as At Five In The Afternoon most certainly is.

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