"Buddha Collapsed out of Shame": Women's Future By Angelika Kettelhack

in 11st Ankara Flying Broom International Women's Film Festival

by Angelika Kettelhack

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame, an Iranian film, was made by Hana Makhmalbaf, the daughter of the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. It is her first feature film. She shot it in 2007 in Afghanistan when she was 18 years old. The film documents, in a bold and clever manner, how in a country where the line between life and death is subtle, the children’s view of life and people is distorted from the beginning of their lives. Some children continue the war play that they learn from their elders. Some others feel the meaninglessness of this play and can be very courageous, strong and patient in their peaceful struggle. With its documentary style of filmmaking, the film is searching for the truth and it underlines how the ‘reality’ of what is being lived in Afghanistan is in fact absurd and shameful.

Hana Makhmalbaf’s film centers around a six-year-old girl, called Baktay. This cute little child is already a strong personality. Like all children of school age, she looks very touching with one of her front-teeth missing. She is not yet going to school because she is only a girl but she definitely wants nothing more than to go there. She hopes that in school she “can learn such funny stories” like Abbas, the son of her neighbor. Abbas has already learned the alphabet, and he is nerving all his surrounding by constantly rehearsing it. Industrious, he is learning everything by heart. Yet he has no intuitions and lacks the talent that Baktay shows: She is inventing always ways out of miserable situations. Both children symbolize, in a way, the Afghan man and woman. Men are stuck with tenacity in tradition while women want to develop in order to change the old stagnation. At least little girls have the hope that they, when they are grown up, will not be the underdogs. Baktay shows a great deal of boldness by overcoming all sorts of obstacles like poverty, the indifference of the grown-ups, and the permanent war games of the boys in her village. Baktay wants to learn more stories in life other than death.

Her dream begins with buying a notebook and a pencil. As a poor girl she does not have the money. So she tries to sell four eggs out of her household. But nobody wants to buy them and in the market she is pushed by an old man and two eggs burst. That means she will have only the money for buying a notebook and no longer a pencil. So she takes the lipstick of her mother as compensation. Later, when she is finally reaching the girl’s school on the other side of the village river (very emblematic too), she wins all her schoolmates by painting their faces with this lipstick. We know that this is forbidden in Baktay’s country. Why otherwise would the Afghan women have to veil themselves with the burka (chador)?

Some might think that Buddha Collapsed out of Shame is only a children’s film, because it is mainly played by children. What a misunderstanding! It is actually easy to discover that behind the wonderfully accomplished acting of these very young amateur-comedians unfolds the whole history of Afghanistan’s fate. The film starts and ends with the footage of the explosion of a (1500-year-old) gigantic Buddha statue that the Taliban destroyed in 2001 in Bamian, Afghanistan. The world´s biggest Buddha statue had been carved in the sandstone cliff rocks of Hindukush-Valley.

Hana Makhmalbaf came up with the title of the film when she was inspired by one of her father´s sayings: “Even a statue can be ashamed of all this violence and harshness, and therefore, collapse.” If one wants to know what the famous director means with this sentence, here is his interpretation: “Afghanistan has as much suffered from foreign interference as it has from indifference. Afghanistan has no oil and even no industry. It’s only natural when options of occupation fail, the only remaining choices are smuggling, joining the Taliban or falling down in a corner in Herat, Bamian, Kabul or Kandahar and dying for the world’s ignorance from hunger. The only one whose heart had not turned to stone yet was the Buddha statue of Bamian. With all his grandeur, he felt humiliated by the enormity of this tragedy and broke down. Buddha’s state of needlessness and calmness became ashamed before a nation in need of bread and it fell.”

In this region of Bamian, the inhabitants have built their homes into the caverns of the surrounding towering mountains. It is astonishing how in the film the small girl Baktay is managing the tightrope walk from her cave over naked rocks down to the village. This seems to be the symbolic balancing act that women of every age group in Afghanistan have to cope with every day under the aegis of the Taliban.

Hana Makhmalbaf, the world’s youngest director till now (she made her fist film at the age of eight), was born on the 3rd of September in 1988 in Teheran, the third child of the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his wife Marziyeh Meshkini, who also is a confirmed film-addict. Twelve years younger than her husband, the master director, Meshkini was an early student in the Makhmalbaf Film House. There she was followed by her daughter Samira, born in 1980, and her son Maysam, born in 1981. All the three children were born in Teheran, since it was not before 2004 that most of the family left Iran when one day the next nine of 18 feature films and many writings and books of Mohsen Makhmalbaf were forbidden in Iran. It was to protest against the extreme pressure of censorship and the return of fascism that they abandoned their homeland. This way the shaken Afghanistan, which shares the border with Iran, became their country of adoption.

Like all the other members of the family, Hana, much younger than her sister Samira and her brother Maysam, studied for eight years in the Makhmalbaf Film House, the film school that her father once again established in Afghanistan. On the family-business-website (www.makhmalbaf.com) with an extensive photo gallery you can see everybody’s darling Hana very often sitting on her father’s lap. Already as a six-year-old child, she worked continuously in the Makhmalbaf family as a continuity-girl or as a clapper for the next film-setting, and later as a still-photographer, script-girl, or assistant-director. At the age of eight, she made her first short film The Day My Aunt Was Ill. The film received international attention at the Locarno Film Festival. At age 14, Hana shot her first documentary titled Joy of Madness in Afghanistan. This film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2003. So it is no surprise that now, at only 18, she made such an astonishing feature-film.

Certainly and admittedly Hana has taken advantage of her family’s support. The fact of being in the bosom of the family (mother writing the scenario of Buddha Collapsed out of Shame, brother producing the film) may have given her a great self-confidence. It is obvious: She, until now, is not suffering from a same situation as other women, a situation, her father (who namely spent four and a half years of his life in prison as a political activist from the age of 17 to 22) described in an article from 2001: “The most advanced people in Afghanistan still believe that Afghan society is not yet ready for female suffrage. When the most progressive sect involved in the civil war finds it too early for women to vote, it is obvious that the most conservative will prohibit schooling and social activities to them. It follows naturally that 10 million women are held captive under their burkas.”

In Buddha Collapsed out of Shame it is a long way for little Baktay to find a school for girls. And even after being rejected in several boys’ classes, where obstinately and imperturbably she tries to persuade all the teachers to give her a chance, she finally is also rejected in the school for girls. According to Makhmalbaf, the conservatism against women in Afghanistan has also the following reason: “According to statistics, over 2,500 schools of the Taliban with a capacity between 300 to 1,000 students attract hungry orphans. In these schools anybody (means: only the boys) can have a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, read the Koran and memorize prayers and later join the Taliban forces. This is the only remaining option for employment.” With the coming of the Taliban, girls’ schools were closed down and for a long time women were not allowed in the streets. More tragically, right before the Taliban took over, one out of 20 women were able to read and write.

What makes this film so important is this: in a filmic, simple but cleverly thought and delightfully realized way, its story tells us what could become of Afghanistan in the future when the intelligent and emotional thinking of women will be more respected. Until now the Afghan woman (with 10 million they make up half of the population) has been the most imprisoned woman in the world. The Afghan society is a male-dominated society. Hana Makhmalbaf’s film is fighting against this stagnation. When Hana shows how keen the little girls are about using a lipstick in her film she is referring to another experience of her father. He observed ladies who took out their hands from under the burkas and asked little peddler boys to polish their nails. It seems that his daughter also sees it as a good sign that women under burkas still like living and, despite their poverty, care about their beauty to that extent. On the other hand, they are in a competition with their rivals. Polygamy is still quite common among young men as well as older ones even though the marriage allowance is so high that getting married means buying a woman. Hopefully women like Hana and Baktay will be a good example for more self-confidence among women in Afghanistan. Little Baktay’s story is inspiring for all, especially for women.