Miranda Sawyer - Reality bites

Film - A raw and intimate look at life in the dust of postwar Kabul. By Miranda Sawyer

Joy of M

Recently, real life has become really hot. TV drama is kiboshed by reality shows; West End plays speak the words of interviewees; documentaries are nominated for movie awards. Channel 4 has just proudly trumpeted its acquisition of the UK rights to several of these feature docs, including the excellent Capturing the Friedmans, plus Super Size Me, The Kid Stays in the Picture and every TV director's fave, Spellbound. (I've lost count of the telly types who phone up and say: "Have you seen Spellbound? Our programme is like that, but it's about Bollywood/internet shopping/Fay Weldon.")

Why this rise in reality? Partly it's because fiction is more expensive than fact: you have to pay everyone who appears in a film, play or TV drama - with reality, contributors often come free. Partly it is because the equipment needed to make filmed documentaries has become more accessible (hand-held cameras, home computer editing suites, sympathetic commissioners). But most importantly, it is because we as an audience have become bored with made-up stories. We know that our own lives, and the lives of people down the road, contain more roller-coaster narrative than any closeted writer could think up. It is this awareness, allied to a vague but deeply felt cynicism towards all forms of establishment information, that has led to our hunger for reality.

Which brings us to Joy of Madness, a revealing insight into life in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Shot on digital video, with all the attendant wobbliness and light-blanching, this is a feature-length documentary made as a 14-year-old by Hana Makhmalbaf. Hana is the second daughter of the Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to have followed in her father's film-steps; her older sister Samira made her first feature, The Apple, at 17. Joy of Madness trails Samira as she attempts to cast her third film, At Five in the Afternoon, the story of an Afghan woman who wants to be president.

However, you don't have to have seen Samira's film to enjoy Hana's documentary: actually, I liked Joy of Madness more than the movie that came out of it. Hana's determination to film faces close up, and the ease of her subjects before her youth, provide us with a raw and very intimate look at Kabul life in 2002. It is shockingly, devastatingly poor. Everyone is scrabbling in postwar dust, trying to scrape a living; women in burqas are still frightened to assert themselves; neighbours gossip superstitiously about who is pro-Taliban, about what these film-making foreigners are really here for (to kill their children, they believe).

In these depressingly backward circumstances, the indomitable and charismatic 22-year-old Samira appears almost naive as she sweeps through Kabul in search of locals willing and able to spend two months acting in her film. We first meet her quarrelling with local women about equality (there's a lot of shouting and interrupting in this film, so don't watch it with a hangover). An Afghan woman insists that females can never govern, that only men are fit to lead. Samira counters with her trump card, Benazir Bhutto; her opponent retorts that Bhutto ruined Pakistan and thus proves her point. What shocks about this scene is the obvious ability and brains of all the women arguing; throughout the film, the Afghans impress with their eloquence and character. Their humanity shines through their fear and desperation.

Samira tries to recruit four characters: a mullah she wants to play the father in the film, two women to play the lead, and a baby, who dies in the story. Some she gets, some she doesn't. Each time, she has to break past her recruit's fear and inability to understand how much dedication a film requires. Even when they agree to appear, they don't turn up. They need time to run their lives. It's the opposite of western society, where everyone wants to be famous. How many people would you have to stop on Britain's streets before you would find one who would drop everything to star in a film?

This isn't a perfect film: its hand-held camera-work made me feel physically sick on occasion, and the constant arguments make it a trial to watch. It is very simply made. But by sticking doggedly to seemingly trivial subject matter, it reveals more about the general situation in Afghanistan than any news report. Though they are homeless and starving, the Afghans don't jump at paid work. They are frightened: fearful of any figure who appears to have authority, and scared to change their own circumstances.

Both Hana and Samira, along with their brother, were hothouse-educated at home. And in this film, it shows: not only through Hana's confident camera-work, but also in Samira's very nature. The contrast between the smooth-talking and precocious film director and her intimidated, hemmed-in, evasive peasant actors is acute, and sad. Education and encouragement are precious privileges.

Mark Kermode returns next week