5 in the Afternoon

Where is Lorca?
Massoud Mehrabi

The third feature film by Samira Makhmalbaf (after the short film God, Construction and Destruction) is an apparently easy but indeed difficult to imitate film, which one may like and praise or dislike and ignore.
Like the director’s previous films, The Apple and The Blackboard, 5 in the Afternoon is filled with symbols and implications in such a way that if you remove the symbols, nothing worthy of mention would remain. The main difference between 5 in the Afternoon and her previous films is that here Samira acts more professionally. She has not only got the knack of the profession, but is more familiar with cinema medium and mise-en-scene, but…
5 in the Afternoon portrays the complicated situation of Afghan women after the downfall of Taliban. Noqreh and her sister-in-law, Leylomeh, represent part of Afghan women in the film. It seems that after the disruption of Taliban regime, women’s situation has been improved in Afghanistan. Noqreh goes to school without her father, a very bigoted man, knowing anything about it. There, in addition to learning Quran, the young girls discuss new ideas. The teacher asks the students about the career they intend to pursue in the future. Everybody says something Noqreh wants to become the president. Due to such an aspiration she faces difficulties and a new challenge in her life. Her role models are such women as Benazir Bhutto or Indira Gandhi, though she had only heard their names. She questions everybody in this regard. However, even Afghans who had lived as refugees in Pakistan for years don’t have anything to tell her. Most of them have been more concerned about finding a shelter and something to eat than politics.
Meanwhile, Noqreh meets a young poet who is interested in helping her to become the president. On the other hand, Leylomeh is grappling with her own problems. Her husband, Akhtar, has joined the war against the remnants of Taliban and nobody knows what has happened to him. Her few-months-old baby is dying due to lack of food and water. Leylomeh has nothing to eat or drink. Therefore, she has no milk to give her baby.
Noqreh’s father believes that the Americans have brought with them the propagation of infidelity and blasphemy throughout Afghanistan; women are ignoring hijab (the Islamic code of dress for women) and men are listening to music. At last, the father accompanied by Noqreh and Leylomeh and her baby, leave the town in search of a place (Utopia) where the Islamic sharia would reign. The baby dies in the meantime and Noqreh and Leylomeh become lost in an endless, arid desert while sadly murmuring a poem by the Spanish poet, Lorca:
Ah, that fatal five in the afternoon!
It was five by all clocks.
It was five in the shade of the afternoon.
The final shot of the film is the same as the beginning shot. By using this old technique, the filmmaker tries to draw a circle and convey to us that nobody can escape it. The fate of people inside the circle is a repetition of suffering and death. The film has been successful in introducing this idea. The efforts of Noqreh [a name that also denotes a metal (silver) that is used as adornment] are futile and lead nowhere. She goes to a school where only beautiful words are exchanged. Actually -in the real world- she is knocking on a closed door that even if opened, there would be nothing beyond it. Becoming the future president is the peak of her idealistic attitude, though she lives in a society where even the primary human needs are not fulfilled. With some exaggeration, one can say she is living with people who do not know whether ‘president’ is something to eat or wear! Noqreh, who dreams of becoming the president, is so assimilated in the society that she accuses her poor and old neighbor of stealing a chicken. Leylomeh (a name that means night and moon in Dari Persian) not only loses her husband – Akhtar (which means star) – for the sake of Afghanistan’s freedom, but also her child who dies of hunger; a child symbolizing rebirth and revival (the new government in Afghanistan) in films symbolic longuage.
Noqreh’s fanatic father -who represents all the fanatic men of Afghanistan- buries his grandchild with his own hands in front of an old man who is going to see Molla Omar. The young poet is the only one who, as the center of the circle, is optimistic about the future. However, like most poets, he is only an idealist and what a poor idealist could accomplish?
Perhaps the Western viewers will be at a loss to understand the main point of the film, that is the radical viewpoint of its Muslim Asian director. The director has chosen certain verses from the Holy Book (which can be heard at the girls’ school) that prove the Taliban to be blameless because they have acted upon the recommendations of their religion. For example: “Tell pious men to close their eyes on women and control their lust.” or “That is more chastely and God is aware of their actions and women stamp not their feet on the ground lest their hidden beauties become evident.” The conflict between the tradition and modernism (even in its most primitive form) in a primeval society becomes quite striking.
After hearing the verse “Men are women's guardians, for God created some superior to others. Advise women whose opposition and obstinacy you fear. Avoid them in bed and punish them. And don't oppress them if they obey you”, Noqreh closes the Holy Book at the threshold of the school, takes off her black silent shoes forever and distances from the sharia and tradition dominating the society by wearing white high heels.
The most attractive sequences of 5 in the Afternoon relate to the same shoes, for example where Noqreh walks with them in such a manner as though she is reviewing the military men marching. In another scene (in that long half-lit vestibule) she recalls her childhood after taking determined steps, then takes off her shoes and starts hopping.
5 in the Afternoon lacks a coherent structure. We are all familiar with the difficulties of making a film in post-war Afghanistan. The behind-the-scene footages that Hanna Makhmalbaf shows about these difficulties in Joy of Madness is understandable and, of course, respectable. However, the final judgement would be made about the film as it is screened.

Regardless of how much the film is or is not cinematic, Samira has hurriedly involved her characters with improvised events that had happened around her, like the scene when people get off the trucks and Noqreh moves ahead of the mob asking questions about how a woman could become a president. The locations are not an exception to this order (disorder); as we see in another scene when Noqreh goes into a half-ruined building in search of a chicken and finds a great number of homeless people there, or another scene where her father says his prayers inside the wreckage of a plane – although it is symbolically interesting.
As I said before 5 in the Afternoon is filled with symbols. Some symbolic concepts have been introduced suitably, like the symbolic concept of lack of water which corresponds to the historical lack of freedom and democracy; the water that should have been drunk by the dying baby, is used for washing him (in Taliban’s sharia cleanliness and purity in its religious sense is more important than staying alive).
Other symbols, however, are ambiguous and making decision about them has been left to the audience.
For example, we see a cock in the film. What does this cock, which is once seen on top of the plane wreckage and then on the load of a horse, stand for? Do we have to take it as a symbol of masculinity? Has the attitude of patriarchal Afghan society towards women been compared to the relationship of a cock with a flock of chickens? Or not, we just have to consider the cock from another viewpoint as a creature that awakens Muslims to say their morning prayers?

The most incongruous element in the film is Lorca’s poem. In the scene where it is said that presidents speech for cows and sheep, the young poet tells Noqreh: “I want you to read this poem. I have a poem by a Spanish poet who wrote it for the death of a cow”.
While we know the great Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca has composed this poem out of sorrow for the death of his closest friend, Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, who was a matador. The question is did Samira Makhmalbaf know it or not? If she knew, then why she has generalized such a big gaffe to the whole film to the extent that she had even named the film after it? Interestingly, the film’s credits carry no reference to Lorca.
Samira Makhmalbaf is now not only more familiar with the tools of this profession, but also is more knowledgeable about the medium and mise-en-scene. However, she must be aware that films as The Apple and The Blackboard which were made out of pure instinct were more enjoyable.

5 in the afternoon
Scriptwriter: Samira Makhmalbaf (Based on a story by Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
Director's Assistant: Marzieh Meshkini
Director of Photography: Ebrahim Ghafoori
Sound-recording: Behrooz Shahamat
Composer: Mohammadreza Darvishi (based on traditional Afghan music)
Editor: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Still Photographer, Producer & Programmer: Maysam Makhmalbaf
Cast: Agheleh Rezaee, Abdolghani Yusef-zay, Marzieh Amiri, Razi Mohebi,
A Makhmalbaf Film House production
Year of production: 2003
Film specs: 105', 35mm, 1-1/85

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