Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
17 October 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 10:16am

Samira Makhmalbaf

10 people - Nicole Mowbray on a precocious director whose films speak for oppressed women everywhere

By Nicole Mowbray

Samira Makhmalbaf has been likened to Sofia Coppola. Both are young and attractive and both have famous film-director fathers. The similarities are obvious – but so, too, is the glaring difference. Samira was born and raised and lives in Iran, and her films reflect the tricky issue of being a woman in the Middle East today. Life for a female film-maker in Tehran is quite different from that of a woman making films in Los Angeles. Flouting the conventions of the Islamic culture in which she works, Samira reaches out to an international audience of women challenging oppression. She makes technically precise, top-quality films for which she has already gathered an international following.

Under the tutelage of her father, the legendary Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira made her first feature film, The Apple, at the age of 17. The Apple documented the struggle of two Iranian girls, imprisoned at home for 12 years by their impoverished parents. Produced and distributed entirely through the family-run Makhmalbaf Film House, it was a scream of protest against fundamentalist patriarchy.

When her next film, Blackboards, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, she dedicated her award to “the new, young generation which struggles for democracy and a better life in Iran”. The media loved it; even Jean-Luc Godard paid homage.

Samira, whose particular combination of background, talent and conviction enables her to reach out to millions of women, left school at 14. “I hated school,” she once said. “They tried just to give you answers, answers, answers and not let you experience or ask questions or see differently.”

Now only 25, with four films under her belt and another on the way, she is a skilled and confident professional, a figurehead for Middle Eastern women, but also for women in the film industry the world over. Don’t think of a preachy do-gooder, though. Samira markets herself astutely, conducting interviews in near-perfect English, her manicured nails rearranging her hijab as she speaks. She has been described as “disarmingly chic”.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

On set, she is ruthless, energetic, even a bully. She knows what she wants and her directing is ferocious. Her siblings made a documentary of her film-making style. It shows Samira striding around Kabul accosting strangers and insisting they act in her film. She is shockingly direct, confronting an elderly mullah with an untraditional lack of deference.

Such audacity and courage make this young director important. In At Five in the Afternoon (2003) – her fourth film – she considers Afghanistan’s future, post-Taliban, and asks whether Afghan women will emerge from underneath the burqa and take power. The film begins with her asking girls at a secular school in Kabul if there will ever be an Afghan Benazir Bhutto or Indira Gandhi. As an observation about the privations of life in Afghanistan, it is profoundly moving, but it has far wider resonance. “We have our own Taliban [in Iran],” Samira said at the time, “Afghan people have their own Taliban, American people have their own Taliban.” Her film explored the mechanisms and cultural norms that stifle young women the world over.

Yet, as Samira achieves international recognition, Iran’s strict film censors are making it difficult for her work to be seen in her home country. Joy of Madness, the documentary about the process of casting At Five in the Afternoon, was banned when Samira’s own headscarf was deemed “insufficiently modest”. “I didn’t try to be a symbol . . .” she has said. “But it’s good. When you break the cliche, some other people come. We need one person to do something, and then it’s easy.”

“A brave and intelligent girl can make her own decisions,” announces one of Samira’s film heroines. That vision of alternative futures encapsulates her importance. Her hard-headed determination to disseminate her views guarantees that her voice will be heard for decades to come.