At Five In The Afternoon (Panj é asr)

Iran (2003) Dir. Samira Makhmalbaf

In a post-Taliban Afghanistan, Nogreh (Agheleh Rezaie) is a young woman straddled between two worlds as she hopes to make appositive future for herself, her family and her country as a woman. She lives with her fanatical father (Abdolgani Yousefrazi) and her sister-in-law Leylomah (Marzieh Amiri) whose husband has gone missing and cannot feed her sickly baby due to her own malnutrition. Behind her father’s back, Nogreh attends a secular girls’ school where her tutor encourages women to better themselves and take any job, including President of Afghanistan, which appeals to Nogreh. With the help of a recent Pakistani immigrant Poet (Razi Mohebi) she strives to learn what makes a respected and electable leader.

The third film from Iranian prodigy Samira Makhmalbaf – daughter of filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose novel this is based on – takes its title from the poem Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, which Poet uses to encourage Nogreh with her electoral ambitions.

The first film to be shot in Kabul after NATO’s invasion, this is a sombre look at life in a country free from Taliban oppression but still directionless and lacking in many simple amenities and luxuries such as money, food, water, medicine and a homes. This might sound like a politically based story but the truth is that while politics may have put the people into this current situation of poverty and hardship, they – aside from Nogreh – have no interest in politics BECAUSE it caused their hardship.

While Leylomah is happy to play the expected role for women by becoming a bride and mother, Nogreh is more ambitious and some would say rebellious. Once her father has dropped her off for her supposed prayer meetings, all covered up and Quran in hand, Nogreh lifts her burka, hides her Quran in her bag and changes her flat shoes for the more sinful white heeled shoes before sloping off to school.

It is here her female tutor ingrains into her students that women deserve to have as much rights as men and should be able to apply themselves to any trade they want, from scientist to engineer and even president. Nogreh is one of three girls who decide that ruling the country is their future vocation, so they hold a mini election. While Poet scoffs at Nogreh and her idolisation of assassinated Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto, he is still keen to help her with her campaign, although his motives may be based on his attraction to Nogreh, and offers her encouragement all the way.  

Despite being surrounded by despair and desolation, there is something quite hopeful and aspiring about Nogreh’s ambitions to better herself in the name of change and progress. The golden carrot of this girl from the slums becoming President of her country may seem far fetched but it really isn’t any different from the countless Hollywood films of rags to riches tales where some disadvantaged kid excels at their chosen vocation/sport/art etc. even if Nogreh’s struggle is a far more serious and realistically a less attainable one.

It is this approach that makes the tone of Makhmalbaf’s film less an accusatory one at the Talbian and the conservative beliefs of the elders, but more a challenging one as to why women should remain second class citizens and why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities as men? She is also keen to point out that female leaders are rare on a global scale, putting Nogreh’s ambitions in the same light of those of any female politician with the same life goal.

A recurring theme is the itinerant whims of Nogreh’s father, constantly on the move as they search for his missing son while cursing each town for its rampant blasphemy (according to his strict beliefs). Their first home among the ruins is overrun by the Pakistani immigrants courtesy of Nogreh’s generous invitation for shelter; they next set up camp in the broken fuselage of a crashed airplane until once again, the arrival of a swarm of noisy neighbours drives them away, until they arrive at the bombed out government building and stay there. For Nogreh, the simple act of removing her burka and changing her shoes is her way of escaping her impoverished life but its grim reality is always there no matter how hard she tries to block it out.

At just 23 years-old at the time, the precocious Samira Makhmalbaf has made a mature and insightful piece of work that belies her young age – although her first film, 1998’s The Apple was selected for Cannes when she was just 18, while showing a well practiced eye for picture composition and atmospheric settings. The dialogue and screenplay may be a little on the simplistic side but the actors are mostly non-professional, something which is quite evident in the delivery; but this isn’t to its detriment, rather it adds to the realism of the characters and the overall impact of the tale.

At Five In The Afternoon not only allows us to see a country beyond the typical war ravaged media portrayals while highlighting the plight of women in society with a rare hopeful viewpoint. An evocative film indeed.