In Iran, a group of neighbors petitioned the local welfare agency to come to the aid of a pair of twelve year old twin girls who had been locked up by their father in their tiny home, behind bars their entire lives. When welfare intervened, the girls were found to be barely socialized, and could neither speak nor walk normally.
Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of a leading Iranian filmmaker, and a teenager herself, initiated filming this family’s story shortly after the incident was reported and shot the film in a mere eleven days. The technique may raise some purists’ eyebrows, because, although the family appear as themselves in the film, Makhmalbaf and her father, who is co-credited for the writing and also edited the film, created a story line and specific situations. The family acted out the scenario with largely improvised dialogue. Is it fact or is it fiction, documentary or, as some have called it, pseudo documentary?
To this reviewer, that question matters not a whit in this case. The family appears in no way to have been exploited by the film (on the contrary, they benefited) and the film itself, in tone and style, gives no impression that it intends to be other than a work of imagination based on this real life situation.
And what a situation! The father: unemployed, paranoid, displaying both a capable mind and a vast ignorance compounded by religious zealotry, concerned more for the dishonor that exposure has brought to him than he is about the well being of his daughters. The mother: blind, verbally abusive of her husband, totally wrapped in her veils; we never see her face. And the girls: shown locked behind the bars of the house like caged animals, barely able to speak, yet somehow retaining a sweetness and an openness as they move into the world.
There’s enough here for a feast of metaphor and our young director serves it up on a platter. The apple that the children crave is the first thing they ask the social worker to bring them. An apple is dangled before them in a game by a young neighbor as they start to venture out into the neighborhood. Though this may be a non-Christian society, it would appear that the apple as symbol of worldly knowledge is universal.
The girls water flowers and do primitive finger paintings of flowers on the walls – the beauty of nature, the instinct for nurture. The father is locked into the house by the social worker and told he has to saw his way out through the bars to regain his own freedom – and thus, at the same time, assure the future egress of his daughters. And we have mirrors galore, both for the girls to see themselves for the first time with all that implies, and for the director to gain some nice reflected shots.
The broader metaphor of this family’s story to the story of social change in Iran also comes ringing through, though it does not address politics directly. Had it done so, the Iranian censors would never have let the film be made, no less exported.
If the literary aspects are a tad heavy handed, our young director keeps the tone human and lets these people be themselves. Some lovely bits of humor slip in, as when a young boy vending ice cream says to the girls, "You were locked up for eleven years? That’s no reason not to pay for the ice cream!" The director has an eye for a nicely composed frame and the effective camera angle, yet the film is kept, as it obviously needs to have been, technically simple.
Makhmalbaf says, "I had to understand the reasons the father did this, had to know what pushed him to act this way." In making the film, she has succeeded in exploring the father’s motivation and, indeed, giving the father a chance to explain his behavior to a world that has "dishonored" him.
Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem to go quite deeply enough. While the film is remarkable for what it does manage to show us, for this viewer it didn’t sufficiently get under the surface. There is always a fascination in the bizarre edges of human behavior. Such incidents force the mirroring of the normal and the abnormal; if we understand the abnormal, perhaps we will better understand the normal. But here we get more in the way of hints of who these characters are than a plumbing of the deeper places that would offer real understanding. Other poor, religious, ignorant people do not lock up their children for years on end. Why did it happen in this family?