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.

The import of these opening moments becomes clear once the screen fills with a written document: a petition to the Welfare Department, sent by the neighbors of the Naderi family. As you read the complaint, hands enter the frame to sign the petition, in some cases marking it in blue with a thumb print. In effect, the film is asking you to witness these signatures and so become a party to the case. But then, what will happen when the girls cease to be a case? How will they, and their parents, go on living?

Most of The Apple in fact takes place in this time after. Having established her theme with those first iconic images–and then having “documented” the Welfare Department’s seizure of the twins (shot on video with a hand-held camera for an extra jolt of immediacy)–Makhmalbaf devotes the rest of the film to a kind of playacting. In a series of improvised scenes, the Naderi family, their neighbors and the social worker try out some of the possibilities of their lives, once the girls have been returned home. And that’s what I like best about The Apple: the sense of opening up, which develops from the first shots to the main body of the film, and which seems to have been communicated directly from Makhmalbaf to the twins.

After the initial shock that comes with learning the facts–after the second shock, of understanding that these are the real girls, the real father, the real one-room house–you begin to deal with the third and greatest shock. You see Zahra and Massoumeh smile. Brought back to the house (and immediately locked behind a gate by their father), they stumble happily toward their bars, resuming a life that to them is normal. Shooting mostly at their eye level and often from their point of view, Makhmalbaf shows how they gaze up at a patch of sky, listen to the crying of a baby in the apartment across the lane, water their stubby, broken plant. This is their world. But then, through situations invented by Makhmalbaf, the world begins to expand.

It’s a small boy, hawking ice cream from a Styrofoam chest, who first leads Zahra and Massoumeh away from their confinement. They don’t seem to know what “ice cream” is; they don’t have the money to buy any, or understand that buying might be required. But they’re curious–and when the social worker drops by and once more frees the girls, off they hobble after their little vendor.

Suddenly, the twins seem more goofy than pathetic. Not only are they bigger than the ice-cream boy, but they turn out to have no compunctions about stealing from him. The day, you see, is hot. But if Zahra and Massoumeh lack a sense of private property, they’re also free of malice. They gladly share their ice cream with each other, with a goat they find in the lane, even with the boy they’ve stolen from. Then, flushed with excitement, they venture even farther astray.

Meanwhile, through intercut scenes, we learn how the father explains himself to the neighbors and the social worker. I can’t say Makhmalbaf pities the man, but neither does she treat him as a monster. A monster doesn’t weep with frustration and shame, or cook rice for his children, or ask in bewilderment how else he was supposed to protect his daughters, if he didn’t lock them in. Did he go to school, asks the social worker. For four years, the father replies. It was “the old method.” And to demonstrate the extent of his learning, he brings out a tattered volume titled Advice to Fathers, which has been his guide. Girls are like flowers, the book explains, and boys are the sun. The sun will wilt the flowers. Rather wilted himself–his eyes are all but invisible behind the panes of his glasses; a wedge of four lonely teeth juts up from his lower jaw–he goes on to complain of the difficulty of his life. His wife is blind and can’t guard the girls. He himself must go out, if only to buy bread and salt and kerosene, and to earn a few tomans. (He doesn’t have a job, but people pay him to pray for them.) So what was he to do?

Zahra and Massoumeh have found something to do. Following temptation itself–an apple, dangled on a string by a playful boy–they have found their way to the market and the park. They’ve even fallen in with a couple of girls, who (though dressed properly in black blouses, black tights and red plaid skirts) are willing to ignore the twins’ pullover shirts and trousers, which could only have come from the cast-off bin at an orphanage. Propriety fails; sociability wins. Somehow, Zahra and Massoumeh figure out how to play with other kids–though Massoumeh slows the process somewhat by repeatedly using an apple to hit her new companion in the face.

Maybe that’s the final shock: the realization that you’re watching a documentary moment within a set-up scene. These two damaged girls are actually learning to play, right before your eyes, and actually lashing out. When Makhmalbaf leaves them–to conclude The Apple with one last iconic image–you have no idea of how these hobbled kids might yet develop. That’s the ultimate freedom granted to the girls by this complex and challenging film, which on its surface looks so simple, charming and direct. Zahra and Massoumeh have no settled future. Or rather, they won’t be condemned to one–and neither will their generation of Iranian women, if Samira Makhmalbaf has her way.