Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Bite of Life

By Heather Iger

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Iranian-born twins Zahra and Massoumeh Naderi were locked away in their tiny house until they were 12 years old. As a result of their utter lack of socialization, the girls could only communicate in the most primitive forms, with tongue-lolling whimpers and whines. Their walking ability was also seriously compromised, and they hadn't bathed in years. At long last, a group of concerned neighbors came forward and petitioned the local welfare office on the children's behalf. Their shocking true story made headlines worldwide.

The public interest in such a sensational story is universal in its appeal. But the narrative strategy utilized in its cinematic reenactment is distinctly non-Western. Like a great many films to emerge from Iran of late (The White Balloon, Children of Heaven), a simple storyline and a light touch of humor combine to create a resonant parable about the human condition. In an unusual blend of both documentary and dramatization, The Apple employs an exceptionally even-handed and humanitarian approach in the telling of this moving story. Rather than utilize professional actors, the cast of characters is actually played by the family members themselves. The girls (Zahra and Massoumeh Naderi) are so devoid of self-consciousness before the camera that one can hardly even call it acting; they're just living. Thanks to this remarkable homogenization between the documentation of hard news facts and impromptu "acting," a structure is created that gives the story a greater context within the real lives of these people. And (in a lesson sorely needed by our own American news media) The Apple remains compelling throughout without ever being exploitative or prejudicial.

After their headline-grabbing run-in with the welfare office, the film shows how the twins' parents are allowed to take them home under the condition that their house's door must remain unlocked. But the parents disobey. The mother, whose face remains perpetually concealed, is blind. The unemployed father (Ghorban Ali Naderi) feels that, if he goes out, the mother can't supervise their daughters properly. So when the welfare worker returns, she finds the children banging spoons against the iron bars that imprison them. The dedicated worker sets the girls free to wander about their neighborhood and make some friends. She then locks the parents in, hands the father a handsaw and demands that he saw his own way out. Eventually, the children return from their day's adventure, and the young former prisoners set their captors free.

What makes this film even more remarkable is the fact that eighteen-year-old director Samira Makhmalbaf shot it in just 11 days.

There's an interesting contrast to the lives of the film's young stars and the life of its young director. Ms. Makhmalbaf is the daughter of Iran's most prominent filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh). Whereas the Naderi twins inherited their parents' social isolation, Makhmalbaf was endowed with tremendous social access. After this, her first feature-length film, Samira Makhmalbaf is now in the same arena as her father -- bestowed with a prestigious "Of Certain Regard" selection at the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for numerous awards at festivals around the world.

In another strangely controversial twist, the children's father is credited with co-writing and editing The Apple. This would seem to allow Ghorban Ali Naderi an opportunity to present his case and to explain the belief system that influenced his rather poor decisions. Rather than being canonized, though, he comes off as an ignorant and clearly chauvinistic man, stating "girls are like flowers -- if the sun shines on them, they will fade." Ultimately, the senior Naderi seems more worried about his own dishonor than his children's welfare. It's also nice to know that if he appears demonized on screen, it is his own doing rather than that of a biased film crew.

The apple is a metaphor for knowledge of the unknown. The twins request an apple in their first contact with the outside world. They are later taunted with an apple by a mischievous young neighbor and lured by it into the great unknown beyond the front door. But "the apple" is always just beyond their grasp. In this amazingly good-natured film, the apple plays with audiences in just the same way. As viewers, we are baited by our curiosity about the foreign and the fantastic. Still, this exceptional film never loses sight of its objective. Its interests are not so much about shocking us or in casting judgment as they are about life's simple discoveries. Highly recommended.

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