Afghan Alphabet

Made in December 2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 44-minute documentary focuses on Afghan refugee children during their first day of school in a village near the Iranian border. It’s indicative of the highly interactive and sometimes competitive nature of recent Iranian cinema that the title of this film can probably be traced to Kiarostami’s recent ABC Africa, which can be traced to Amir Naderi’s A, B, C . . . Manhattan (1997). And at times Makhmalbaf, who doubles as offscreen narrator and interviewer, may be trying (without a great deal of success) to emulate Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black (1962), even down to the cadences of the poetry he recites near the end. There’s something moving about kids seeing education as a precious luxury and crowding classrooms to capacity even when they can’t officially enroll, and given that America was attacking their country one can understand a boy saying he doesn’t like either America or the Taliban. Yet I’m not entirely comfortable with Makhmalbaf’s aggressive efforts to persuade one little girl to remove her veil: the film is structured around the children’s first lessonsaying, writing, and reading the Afghan word for waterand getting the girl to show her face long enough to wash it. In Farsi with subtitles. (JR)

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