A man locks his daughters in a one-room house for their first twelve years. The girls–twins–don’t attend school; they don’t play with other kids. They’re never even given a bath. By the time a social worker intervenes, summoned tardily by the neighbors, the damage has been done. Though now on the verge of puberty, the girls speak in gurgles and catlike yowls. Their gait is a knock-kneed, arm-flailing shuffle–as you might expect, since they’ve never been allowed outside a ten-by-twelve-foot cell. As for hand-eye coordination: When asked to copy a drawing of a triangle, the girls scrawl a flopping, meandering line that barely manages to close on itself.
All this has happened before The Apple begins. In fact, it happened before anyone thought to make the film. The story of these imprisoned girls was first told by news reporters in Teheran. Only then did a budding director hear the tale and decide to seek out the family, to ask them to appear in a film as themselves.
Remarkably, they agreed. So The Apple incorporates a true story, re-enacted by its actual protagonists. And it incorporates a second true story as well–one that, though implicit in the picture, is no less amazing than the first. It belongs to the filmmaker.
Her name is Samira Makhmalbaf, and two years ago, when she made The Apple, she was 17. To avoid First World smugness, let me pause to note that very few young women in the United States get to direct a picture and have it distributed. Consider the unlikeliness of an Iranian girl’s making a film, and doing so on the subject of the constraints on Iranian women.
The trick, in this case, was her last name. The aspiring filmmaker is the daughter of the respected, pugnacious, frequently censored and highly popular Mohsen Makhmalbaf (best known in the United States for Gabbeh). At the very moment when the daughter’s brain caught fire with the story of the imprisoned girls, the father happened to receive from the government the long-awaited allocation of a camera and film stock. He was supposed to use these resources to begin work on a feature of his own, which finally had been approved by the authorities–but what’s a little more trouble to Mohsen Makhmalbaf? He handed over the equipment to his child, who plunged ahead and shot The Apple in eleven days.
It’s impossible to watch the film without thinking of this second father-daughter story and of the way it answers a tale of constraint with a public gesture of enablement. But however virtuous the elder Makhmalbaf’s action, it would count for little unless the younger had made good on it. So enough of background. Let’s get to the good stuff, which is what Samira Makhmalbaf gives you from the very first shot.
You see a rough-textured, whitewashed wall basking in sunlight. In front of it, to the left of the frame, sits a flowerpot; and out of the pot pokes a brown stub, which evidently can’t grow more than an inch without breaking, then straggling on in a new and inappropriate direction. It’s not so much a plant as a series of improperly set fractures. You scarcely have time to grieve over this vegetated abjection when a hand descends into the frame, coming from an unseen source on the right. With the hand comes water–which, unfortunately, spills far short of the flowerpot. Most of it dribbles onto the ground before the last, inadequate drops reach their mark.
Hard upon this scene, this little drama of persistence in the face of near-futility, comes a view of a man and a woman, who have their backs to the camera. The woman seems to have been swallowed whole by a dark chador printed with tiny flowers. The man, hunched over in a dusty black jacket and watch cap, reveals little more than his nape and ears. These figures, who are set inside a room, block the doorway and the light with their blank, inert, unapproachable mass. You feel you couldn’t get around them, but neither could you escape their presence. They seem to fill the room with a whispering, which hisses on the soundtrack unintelligibly and without relief.