Written by Iran’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf and daughter Samira, Panj é asr is a compassionate film about post-Taliban Afghanistan that appreciates both religious elders and the young who yearn for self-determination, and a visionary film, a circular “road picture” that keeps returning to the school where girls are encouraged to think about national affairs and how they may contribute to their country’s forward journey, and not just about housework and raising children. Samira Makhmalbaf was in her mid-twenties when she made this film; Nogreh, her protagonist, is three years younger.
Inspired by the example of Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Nogreh dreams of someday being Afghanistan’s president; but she cannot share this dream with her father, nor lift the veil of her burqa, nor wear her high-heeled shoes, in front of him. Nor may her dream survive the reactionary social and cultural forces arrayed against it.
Leylomah, Nogreh’s sister-in-law, and her sick baby have been abandoned by their husband and father, Nogreh’s brother: an illustration of misguided male prerogatives. Leylomah has run out of milk and options, but Makhmalbaf keeps symbolism simmering rather than allowing it to take over and abstract the pain of ordinary human lives. Nogreh could be Leylomah if she loses her grasp on her progressive dream. The search for Leylomah’s spouse is part of the movie’s “road” aspect.
Assisted by her superb cinematographer, Ebrahim Ghafuri, Makhmalbaf creates exceptionally hard-edged images that appear to have little space for dreams. The film’s bravura opening shows Nogreh stealing to the outdoor school by passing through enveloping structures of darkness; her walk back home, also towards the camera, finds her face darkened as well.
By stark contrast, shot from behind, the pupils at school, in long-shot a field of white head scarves, encapsulate some progress, hope.
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