After making Blackboards in Kurdistan, twenty-three-year-old Iranian film-maker Samira Makhmalbaf has chosen post-Taliban Afghanistan as the setting of her third feature, the winner of the 2003 Cannes Grand Jury Prize. The film tells the story of Noqreh, a young woman who wants to be president of her country. Unbeknown to her fanatically religious father she attends a new school for girls. However, even there, Noqreh’s ambitions are initially met with laughter. Undeterred, she sets out to find out more, asking everybody she meets how the leaders of their countries came to power.
This leads to many humorous moments, but Noqreh’s naíÂ¯ve attitude is also a way to prod and question political and social structures and to explore the complex reality of Afghanistan today. The film does not demonise anyone, not even Taliban followers. Fundamentalist old men are playfully mocked, and Noqreh’s father is portrayed as a bewildered man rather than as a tyrannical monster.
The non-professional actors add authenticity to a film that gives a voice to the Afghan people, and it is worth seeing if only for the non-Western perspective it offers on the country. The sight of Kabul in ruins is chilling and the overall picture is that of a country plunged in chaos and confusion, with no hope of a better future any time soon. Describing the harsh realities of life in Afghanistan, the film remains admirably unsentimental.
A slow-paced, elegant meandering through places and ideas, the film takes its title from a Garcia Lorca poem about the death of a matador, and the line recurs throughout the film, imbuing it with dreamy mystery. A beguiling mix of realism and poetry, of humour, hope, beauty and despair, At Five in the Afternoon is a deeply affecting work, highly rewarding both visually and emotionally.