Samira Makhmalbaf may have followed in her father’s footsteps when she decided to become a filmmaker, but her work has made a name for herself. Makhmalbaf is considered to be one of the most influential directors as part of the second wave of Iranian New Wave cinema.
Iranian film was originally reflective of popular cinema of Hollywood and India, rather than reflecting the country’s own culture. The first wave of Iranian New Wave cinema was a reaction to the popular cinema of the time that did not reflect the lives of Iranians or the artistic taste of the society. The first wave took place between 1969 and ended in 1979 during the start of the Iranian revolution.
The second wave began after the Islamic revolution and the most notable figures are Amir Naderi, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, Asghar Farhadi, Hossein Shahabi, and both Samira and her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Samira Makhmalbaf left high school at age 14 to study cinema. Although already having grown up watching her father make films, she spent four years as part of the Makhmalbaf Film School. The school allowed its students to major in a specific discipline of filmmaking. Samira chose direction. After directing two video productions, at age 17, she went on to direct her first feature film, The Apple.
The Apple, according to Makhmalbaf, is a cross between documentary and fiction. The film follows the aftermath of a real life story and people where a father in Tehran had kept his two daughters confined to their home since birth. Makhmalbaf began filming the real girls a few days after she heard about the story. Often asked if the girls in the film are the real girls, Makhmalbaf responded, “Oh yes, they are. Why should I go to another actor or actress and bring them in? At the beginning I thought, ‘Nobody, even a specialist, would know how the behavior of two humans who have never had any contact with the outside world would be.’ So I had to bring them to be themselves.”
Samira’s father was the writer and editor on the film. His involvement in Samira’s work is often brought up by critics because they claim that his influence obscures her authorship of the films. However, collaborative filmmaking is a common characteristic of Iranian filmmaking and Mohsen avoids being on set during filming.
According to the website, Senses of Cinema, “Samira’s films present a consistently exacting and rigorous approach to situations, characters, real events, society, and the way each is viewed. This seems to be a quality which, initially, distinguishes between the work of Mohsen and Samira. Samira’s feature films are more unified in approach, casting an almost anthropological eye over the border regions and practices of Iranian society, whereas Mohsen’s career is very difficult to summarize due to its shifts in tone, approach, social, and even political orientation.”
At age 20, Samira directed Blackboards, a film that takes place during the Iran-Iraq war and focuses on itinerant Kurdish teachers who carry blackboards on their backs, looking for students in the hills and villages of Iran, near the Iraq border.
Samira only cast one professional actor in the film, the rest were local people who speak Kurdish, which Makhmalbaf did not speak, but she could communicate with them in Persian. “It was hard and easy at the same time. It was hard because they didn’t know what was cinema. They wanted to take a holiday during production for some religious practices and I said, no, it’s not possible. But it was easy also, because it wasn’t complicated. I chose all these characters because of the geography of their faces one by one; if you love your characters, they can feel it. And when you feel it, it’s easier to direct them. It was a challenge, but it was not impossible,” Makhmalbaf said in an interview with IndieWire.
Makhmalbaf has been an activist for women’s rights since a young age and when asked what difficulties women directors face in Iran, she explained, “Traditionally, it is in the minds of everybody that a woman cannot be a filmmaker. It is therefore harder for a woman. Also when you live in this kind of situation, there is a danger that you can start to develop a similar mindset and so the thing is to challenge this situation, and then slowly, the situation will change also in the minds of others. I very much hope in the advent of freedom and democracy, Iran can produce many more women directors.”
In 2002, she directed a segment entitled “Iran” in a documentary about September 11. In 2003, she went on to direct her third feature, At Five In the Afternoon, which was the first film to be made in a post-Taliban environment. The main character is a young Afghani woman who wants to be educated. She begins to attend a secular girls’ school and dreams of becoming the president of Afghanistan. The film earned Makhmalbaf the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
“Humans in the world are suffering from lots of pain and much of it is because of the way we think. Cinema has the power to change the way we think and that is one of the reasons I am in cinema. Also, I think cinema is like a mirror; you put it in front of society and society and culture can see itself and if they find something wrong they can change it. So yes, I believe cinema can change the world for the better,” Makhmalbaf said in a 2013 interview.
WATCH: If you have a DVD plan on Netflix. Unfortunately, Samira’s films are hard to find on streaming sites.