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Vibrant frames

Collective Chaos treated Bangaloreans to some fine films by the Makhmalbaf family

MAGICAL FOLKTALE The film Gabbeh traces the itinerant lives of a community which weaves tapestries

Collective Chaos' Makhmalbaf Film Festival brought to Bangalore screens some of the best known films from the film house, including Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist as well as lesser-known films constructed in a surrealist manner not generally associated with the docu-feature style mastered by that family.

Including films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, his daughter Samira and Marziyeh Meshkini, the festival kicked off with Mohsen Makhmalbaf's frenetically paced The Cyclist. A former Afghan cyclist, Nassim, has to pay for his wife's mounting hospital bills and desperately looks for work. In a fiercely competitive environment where jobs are spread thin amongst the growing number of Afghan refugees vying for them, Nassim finds work with an enterprising businessman who collects tickets from passers by and claims Nassim will cycle for seven days non-stop.


Nassim cycles feverishly around a tiny space that is marked out by audiences who vary daily, thus becoming a microcosm to reflect the town's own diversity and desperate poverty: its leper community gathers one day, its neglected aged the next. His cycling forms the fulcrum for the film and appended to it are minor characters living off the gathered crowds: the gypsy palmist, making a living from commonsensical observations of her client's lives and so on. Crucially though, shrewd businessmen place large wagers on whether Nassim will win or lose. As greater media attention is devoted to Nassim's feat, crowds swell and the rival camps try to destroy Nassim by paying doctors to inject him with harmful medication. But Nassim cycles through it all, finishing the feat and continuing to cycle even after the middleman who was to pay him has run away with the gypsy. At once presenting frames from the squalid lives of Afghan refugees and juxtaposing those against the shrewd businessmen making a killing from Nassim's desperation, the film also suggests a lifetime lived in those seven days. Nassim, once a scavenging refugee, is, for seven days, the centre of attention, the focus of media flashbulbs, the object of enormous wagers; perhaps earning a sense of self in this perverse circus, but certainly trapped in it.

Also by Makhmalbaf was The Afghan Alphabet, a hopeful film peppered with his characteristic wry, understated humour showing the life of Afghan refugee children denied an education in Iran's border towns since they don't possess any ID cards. Eager to learn, the children hover outside classrooms while the rest of the class learns the basic alphabet. The Taliban influence is not hard to miss either: a young girl indoctrinated to believe removing her veil is wrong is hampered in her learning as she refuses to obey her teacher and synchronise with the rest of her class. The film ended with the girl urging to compromise by a friend and finally obeying the teacher; perhaps a sign of the beginnings of progress.

Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple used as its cast the real people involved in a story that shot to the headlines when neighbours complained that two 11-year-old girls had been locked up for years in their tiny house. A officer from the Welfare Department intervenes and the girls — both seemingly slightly autistic and unsteady on their feet — are let out to explore their neighbourhood. A simple-enough story made by Samira when she was only seventeen, its uniqueness lies in its realistic and understated docu-style narrative of a righteous and misguided father holding back his girls from an exposure to a larger world he is afraid will "pollute" them. Hand held shots and real-life characters allow the girls to dominate the some what freewheeling film as we follow them discovering simple pleasures: ice cream, apples, street-side games but Samira's style of rendering the camera lens almost invisible, borders on the bland.

At Five in the Afternoon features an impassive Aghelah Resaie in the lead, to tell a story of squalor, death, hunger and repression. Set in the bombed out ruins of Kabul, it presents a realistic picture of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Resaie is a young girl who defies her father by attending a secular school, and dreams of becoming President of the Republic. Through her meetings with a young refugee boy, a French soldier and her interactions with belligerent classmates who want to know how a burqa-wearing woman with children could possibly become President and her own hardliner father, Samira Makhmalbaf presents various glimpses into the many forces tearing apart Afghanistan. This film too is told in an understated manner, and again, low-key performances and streaming images of poverty leave no lasting memories or difficult questions.

The festival ended with Gabbeh, an unusually surrealist film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf where he traces the itinerant lives of a community who weave tapestries ("gabbeh") as they travel amidst desolate, Dalie-esque landscapes. Makhmalbaf strays from his usual style to make this magical folk tale replete with the eerie howls of a lover on horseback as he follows a young girl sheltered in her gypsy community. The tapestries emerge from and dissolve into the vibrant colours of the landscape in a poetic film that braids fantasy and reality to mark a departure from Makhmalbaf's other hard-hitting documentary features and proves a fitting end in what was a film festival of diverse work.


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