Saturday, 16 August 2014

And Now the Children of this Land...

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

Hana Makhmalbaf’s Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame begins with archive footage of people worshipping at the base of the two giant sandstone Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, in existence there since the fifth century. Before 30 seconds has passed, a dynamite burst and thick, pummelling clouds of grey-black smoke announce the statues’ destruction by the Taliban in March 2001. The film that follows takes place in the space of this destruction and the statues’ absence. Its characters tread underfoot the dust of generations of prayers and dreams.

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame is the latest film made in areas of recent and present conflict– Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan; films such as Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly, Marzieh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, Siddiq Barmak’s Osama – in which children take the leading roles. The concentration on their lives is crucial; by showing their present experiences and the extent of their betrayal by adults in their lives, they reveal the depth of the wounds – in their bodies and in the very language they have been taught to use – that they will take into our shared future.


Turtles can Fly was filmed in and around a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan in the weeks leading up to and during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As in Ghobadi’s debut feature The Time for Drunken Horses, his concentration is on the lives and relationships between children; adults are peripheral figures. This begets an atmosphere of raw immediacy, sometimes on the edge of chaos, that takes you into the heart, the confusion and even the humour of the place. In particular he follows ‘Satellite’ – an adolescent fixer named after the satellite dishes he arranges for surrounding villages so that inhabitants can get news of the impending war, and who also organises gangs of children for their daily work of clearing landmines from villagers’ fields. To begin with, he resells the mines for a few dinars; later, with war imminent, the mines are swapped for machine guns for the villagers. He also strikes up a relationship with a family of three refugee children – a boy who has lost his arms through a landmine and who has the gift of prophecy, his troubled young sister Agrin and the blind infant for whom they care.

There are scenes in this film that will silence you: the blind toddler wandering through a minefield, or crying for its father among the spent shells of a weapons dump; the same child standing in the rain and touching the barbed wire at the edge of his refugee camp; the orphaned girl tying the child to a rock; the child’s armless uncle defusing a land mine with his teeth.

Ghobadi said he intended to make a different film, ‘a movie in the city about adults’, but when he ‘saw so many children with such desperation, these children without limbs, he could not deny their cry’. He says that, ‘this film is not about children. It's about these young people who have become adults prematurely, who have never had a childhood.’ Agrin is one such girl. Her childhood ended with the murder of her parents and her rape by Saddam’s soldiers. Their barbarity is channelled through her blank stare; the stare of a young girl who understands everything only too well.

Turtles Can Fly shows the resilience and ingenuity that go hand in hand with the mental and physical ruination of children’s lives. Though rooted entirely in a certain place at a certain time, the film is also allegorical. These are the world’s forgotten children, the children of some mined borderland, caught up in the wreckage of violent history; here, elsewhere, time and again.

War Orphans

The children in Marzieh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, filmed in Kabul in 2003, are not forgotten, but their presence is a nuisance to the authorities. The film is based on a true story that Meshkini came across when she was in Afghanistan with Samira Makhmalbaf, scouting for locations and actors for Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon. While in a prison in Kabul, Meshkini encountered a number of children whom she initially took to be prisoners. She subsequently learned that they spent the nights there with their mothers as they had nowhere else to go, and were then released onto the streets for the day. It is around this situation that Meshkini based her film.

With their Talib father in prison, Gol Ghotai and her brother Zahed have to fend for themselves. Their mother had married again after his five year absence so that she could feed her starving children; she is also now in prison, for being ‘a whore’. The children sleep with her during the night, and by day, join the thousands of others who make a living by rummaging through the rubbish dumps on the banks of the river, looking for something, anything, to sell. (In the very first scene we see Gol Ghotai pick up a book from a heap of rubbish through which she is rifling. I’ve found a book – should we sell it or burn it?’ she asks Zahed.) Then, after they have been told they can no longer stay with their mother as 'night prisoners', they try to commit a robbery so they can be arrested and sent to prison too.

Everything about the children’s world is upside-down, as if a new and terrible logic has taken hold. Adults generally play no constructive roles in the film. They are shown as the guardians of doorways – jailing, locking and, mostly, refusing entry, though sometimes giving grudging access. The only time that adult men engage in communal action is to organise a fight between vicious dogs (an unscripted event incorporated into the final film). These are children who are part of a generation of war orphans, even though their parents are still alive.

When Gol Ghotai goes to visit her mother in prison she has to knock on the massive padlocked metal doors. The ring that serves as both handle and door knocker is larger than her own head. She can just about reach it, knocks it, and then again when she receives no answer. She is a symbol of young defiance, refusing to accept unsatisfactory answers and continuing to question those in authority. She is resilient, resourceful and has the look of justice in her eyes. At the time of filming, she was 7 years old.

The Stoning Game

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame, scripted by Marzieh Meshkini and filmed by her then 18 year-old daughter, Hana Makhmalbaf, shows the effects of this poisoning of a generation’s actions and – most destructively – words.

In the caves of Bamyan, 6 year-old Baktay, left in charge of her mother’s baby, tells Abbas, a child from the neighbouring cave, to read his alphabet quietly so as not to wake the sleeping infant. He responds by challenging the bright-eyed girl to read. This is not a challenge she can refuse, though she holds the proffered book upside-down as she recites the names of the pictures in its pages. Abbas then tells her a short, funny story: A man was sleeping under a tree. A walnut fell on his head. The man got up and said, ‘Lucky it wasn’t a pumpkin or I’d be dead!’. Baktay’s eyes are filled with rapt attention and she responds with words that would put a warm glow inside any teacher of whatever age. Read some more, she says, but Abbas only knows this one story, so she then says, will you take me to school?

This is where her problems start, as – showing the resourcefulness and innocent determination of the young – she embarks on an absurd runaround to find a notebook and pencil for class. For this, she needs twenty rupees. Abbas tells her to sell four eggs, which the shopkeeper then tells her to sell in the market, where she wanders the muddy streets and is ignored and refused. She follows a man to try and get money from him for the eggs he has jogged out of her hand, and she is reduced to sitting on a wall, next to a caged quail, holding out her remaining two eggs to passers-by. At one point she watches the hands of two men at a stall counting out thousands of rupees. What will you do with all that money?, she asks. The blacksmith tells her to swap eggs for bread which he will then buy, though to do this, foreshadowing her torment to come, she has to pass a vicious barking dog. Don’t eat me, I need to buy a notebook, she says. The smile in her eyes when eventually she exchanges the ten rupee note for the notebook is genuine, the yellow of the book’s cover reflecting the sunlight onto her face. The pen she needs was the two eggs broken in the marketplace, so she takes her mother’s lipstick to write with.

Abbas takes her to school – and is told to stand on one leg for being late. Baktay is told to go to the girl’s school across the river. In a show of guileless innocence, mistaken for impudence by the teacher, she keeps returning to the boys’ school, pressing the teacher for the story she wishes to hear. What do you want with a man sleeping under a tree? is the teacher’s only response, and he sends her on her way.

She is then ambushed, by a gang of boys pretending to be Taliban, using sticks for guns, ripping up her notebook to make paper warplanes. Hold your hands up they say, as they prod her with their sticks in front of the absent Buddha. Her initial look of amused consternation turns to fear when the boy’s leader says, you are a sinner, we’ll stone you, and commands his gang to collect ‘the Buddha’s toenails’. I won’t play the stoning game says Baktay. It’s not a game says the boy’s leader, following this with words that no child should ever know, let alone say with conviction; they are digging your grave.

Repent! You are a sinner! the boy commands, in words that are unhelpful when spoken by adults, but grotesque in the mouths of children. Let me go to school to learn funny stories says Baktay as she is lowered into her grave by the Taliban boys. Readying themselves to stone her, they hold rocks above their heads, their eyes aflame with spite and fevered hate. Though the children’s sticks are rifles, the grave is a grave, and the rocks are rocks. This is no game. Baktay is 6, the boys a little older.

Abbas, walking along the path, is then tricked into and trapped in a mud pit, where he is interrogated. The conversation between Abbas and the Talib boy recalls that between Winston Smith and O'Brien in the Ministry of Love in Orwell's 1984. What is crucial here, is that whatever answer Abbas or Smith gives, it will never be right. Questions here are a means of retaining power, not a way of eliciting information. As he stands there, covered from head to toe in yellow mud and muck, this perpetual learner, who speaks the alphabet wherever he goes, is reduced to stuttering out letters, not knowing the words that are required of him.

By the end, both Abbas and Baktay have died, symbolically, as a way out of their present troubles. Encircling Baktay where she falls are men winnowing grain. As they throw it to the wind, the air is filled with chaff from which they protect their eyes with the same brown paper bags that the Taliban boys put over young girls’ heads.

Of Buddha Collpased Out of Shame, Hana Makhmalbaf said, ‘Now the children of this land in their games fire at each other with wooden arms and play the stoning game with little girls and place mines under each other’s feet in humour.
How will these children who mock the game of war in childhood play with each other and the future of humanity?’

If we fail to see just what is happening to this generation of children, orphaned and traumatised by war and violence, and how their experiences and disaffection will transmute into future action, then God help us all.

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