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The Apple
cast: Massoumeh Naderi, Zahra Naderi, and Ghirbanali Naderi

director: Samira Makhmalbaf

84 minutes (PG) 1997 widescreen ratio 16:9
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
The apple is a fruit heavily laden with Judeo-Christian connotations, so it is somewhat surprising to find it used in this way as a symbol of worldly knowledge in a film from the Shi'ite Islamist state of Iran. However this is only one of many surprises in this highly unusual, funny, touching and disturbing film. Another is the age of the director: at 17, this was Samira Makhmalbaf's debut feature, although as the daughter of the legendary Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf she presumably received some kind of parental guidance and encouragement. After all, Makhmalbaf Sr himself wrote the screenplay and edited the film. Any other details of Makhmalbaf Jr's subsequent career can be gleaned from the biography, which together with the film's theatrical trailer, comprise the DVD extras.

The Apple is a reconstruction of a bizarre true story from the back streets of Tehran, about a mother and father who keep their two daughters locked up in the house, which brings us to another of the remarkable things about the film. The family involved play themselves, re-enacting their own roles in the story. In fact, it's not the first drama-documentary to feature participants of the real-life events as themselves (The Battle Of Algiers, in which a former FLN guerrilla not only performed in the film, but co-directed it as well, is a notable antecedent). This makes it difficult to categorise The Apple as documentary or drama, but it's none the worse for that.

The film opens with the family's neighbours signing a petition calling for the Tehran welfare department to intervene on the daughters' behalf. First the sisters are taken into care, given a haircut and then returned to the parents on the condition that they are given access to the outside yard at least. The relaxation of their confinement does not last for long however, and the female social worker assigned to the family's case has to resort to more drastic and unorthodox methods. She lets the sisters out onto the streets and locks the parents in the house.

At first the girls find it difficult to adjust to this new freedom, and keep running back into the yard. The social worker continually drives them back out, telling them to go and make some friends. As they wander through the back alleys of their neighbourhood, they come across a boy ice cream vendor. In their ignorance of the role of money in the world, they simply take what they need, in this case the street vendor's ice creams. Another boy teases from an upstairs window, by dangling an apple tantalisingly in and out of their reach. Then he takes them to a fruit stall, where they are again confronted by the need for money, this time to pay for apples. They return again to their imprisoned father, this time to demand money. The two sisters are slowly beginning to recover their voices (literally), because they are overcoming their social isolation.

The hermetically-sealed existence their parents have attempted to impose on the girls is most vividly dramatised by the figure of their blind mother who is mostly unseen, but who in her occasional appearances shuffles around fully enclosed in a burka-style garment that even covers her sightless eyes. The only visible part of her are her clawing hands, one of which is seen tightly grasping both of the girls' hands as they are returned to the family prison after their brief spell in the custody of the Tehran Welfare Department. She is a figure at once sinister and pathetic, imposing and powerless. Her husband too shares some of her vision impairment, peering at the world - and the religious texts with which he defends his actions - through thick-lensed spectacles. Both parents see the outside world as a threat, represented by the boys who, according to the father, throw their balls over the yard's high walls as an excuse to climb in, have their wicked way with his daughters and 'dishonour' him. His arguments and rationalisations give a bizarre twist to the familiar phrase 'lock up your daughters'. As for the daughters, their confinement has limited their speech, not their sight, and they only too eager to see, experience and interact with the world, though the knowledge they seek is perhaps not the kind of carnal knowledge their father is worried about.
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