(director: Samira Makhmalbaf; screenwriter: Mohsen Makhmalbaf; cinematographers: Ebrahim Ghafouri/Mohamad Ahmadi; editor: Mohsen Makhmalbaf; cast: Massoumeh Naderi, Zahra Naderi, Ghorbanali Naderi, Azizeh Mohamadi; Runtime: 85; A New Yorker release; 1998-Iran/France)

“About women’s rights in a country where women are seen as inferior.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Apple” is the first feature by Samira Makhmalbaf, the 17-year-old daughter of the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh). It is based on a true event and uses the actual family involved in relating this odd but wonderful story, which is told in a wryly humorous manner.

In the poor section of south Tehran, 12-year-old twin daughters, Massoumeh and Zahra, are locked in their one-room house, kept from going outside, from attending school, from any contact with the outside world, left unwashed, barely able to speak except in gurgles, and are without friends. The father is a 65-year-oldimpoverished, poorly educated, unemployed religious fundamentalist, who gets handouts from people who ask him to pray for them. The mother is blind, fearful of life, and unwilling to let the girls be free because of her insecurities and mental unbalance. The father’s reason for keeping the girls locked behind bars for their entire life is that: “My daughters are like flowers. They mustn’t be exposed to the sun or they would soon fade.” He also claims that his blind wife can’t watch the children and he must lock them in or else the girls could get touched by boys and be dishonored.

This ignorance is bliss tale, a tale with no given solution, seems like it is a documentary; but, instead it mixes fact and fiction, as it adds setup fictional pieces to its factual story; and, this national story in Iran, which was widely reported in their media causing a national scandal, plays here with a dazzling sense of wonderment and complexity. It was a condemnation of how girls are treated differently in comparison to boys, because the boys would have been allowed to play outside and therefore would have never been imprisoned. It makes a potent statement about women’s rights in a country where women are seen as inferior, and it also symbolically calls for more freedom for all people. Samira, now that she had the consent of the real people involved to film their story, went right ahead with the project, securing help in the script and in the editing from her famous and controversial father. She was able to shoot this simple story within eleven days. Samira Makhmalbaf has made it a story that calls attention to the plight of women in Iran, not caring how controversial it would seem to the authorities.

Inexcusably, after so much psychological damage has been done, a petition to the Welfare Department sent by the neighbors of the Naderi family is shown onscreen; and, a social worker shows up at their door to question them. She then takes the children to the orphanage to wash up and be interviewed, before deciding what to do with them. They make an agreement with the parents that the children are not to be locked in anymore, but must be allowed to play in the street; and, thereby, the twins are thusly returned to the parents.

When the social worker visits them again, the children are still locked up. The social worker then takes action, freeing them to go play in the streets, while locking the parents inside to let them know how it feels. The neighbors are seen reacting to the girls on the street and the social worker’s presence, either praising her for bringing the girls back or wondering why she didn’t keep the girls with the Welfare Department. The girls get into trouble in the following ways: when they try to buy ice cream from a boy vendor without money and then steal the ice cream; when meeting a couple of girls who teach them how to play without hitting each other; and, when they chase after an apple a playful boy dangles by a string from his apartment window.

The social worker gives the father a hacksaw and tells him that is the only way he will leave his imprisonment.

What will happen to the girls in the future is anybody’s guess. The last shot, if it is an omen of the future then it is a scary one, shows the blind woman as she leaves the house and meets the same playful boy dangling the apple and ends up chasing the same apple her daughters chased. Who knows what will happen in Iran and what fate awaits those who are blind or have been imprisoned and venture out into the unknown, but for the teenage filmmaker that is the only way to secure freedom.