This is an unusual film, though not one that can be considered a major work of cinema. It gains importance because it shows how children can be used as a tool to discuss serious social and political issues. The film is about a young Afghan girl who yearns to read and write as the boys of her age. The film provides a chilling account of the Taliban’s intolerance of girls attending school, of women using lipstick and stoning of women to death for trivial reasons—all reprised through games of children imitating the disturbing adult actions.
The Iranian film is shot on Afghan locations very close to the spot where the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban destroyed the centuries-old rock hewn gigantic statue of Buddha. Had it existed today, it could have been a modern wonder of the world. Hence the title--Buddha collapsed from shame. The film's location, Bamyan, probably does not have not a single Buddhist--at least officially. It is habited by gentle, peace loving Muslims terrorized by fundamentalist Muslims. Women are forced to wear burkhas--to cover their hair. If the women use lipstick, they are brutally punished, even stoned to death, after being given water to drink before they die! Girls are not allowed to attend school, while boys are. The film begins with the documentary footage of the destruction of the Buddha statue.The film is an interesting film for several reasons.
It is directed by a 19-year-old girl--daughter of a famous Iranian director. For a teenaged Iranian Muslim woman to take on the powerful Taliban while living in a theocratic state of Iran is commendable. It is the first known Muslim filmmaker's attempt at criticising the Taliban. Like Sofia Coppola, her famous filmmaker father must have encouraged her at every step.
The most valuable part of the film is that the criticism is indirect as perceived from a child's perspective. A lovely, persistent, young girl child wanting to learn to read and attend school, makes intelligent use of her mother's lipstick and four eggs taken from her home to attain her aim in life. Her mother is away, working. (I guess here shades of director Hana Makhmalbaf's personal aspirations are mirrored, though she led a much better life than the Afghan girl.) The film is a wonderful example of use of kids in world cinema. What credible performances!
However, there are problems with the film. Many sequences seem to remind you of Lord of the Flies. Then there is a sequence where the girl child ties a baby with a rope and leaves for school--but this scene is never followed up. There is another scene where the girl rings the school bell, and no one in the school seems to be bothered by her action. Pleasant humour takes its toll on credibility. Yet Hana needs to be commended for her brave and intelligent work. The film was chosen to open the 12th edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala, India, to drive home the point that cinema today can be effective without sex and violence and be able to provoke a viewer to reflect on grave issues affecting lives today in remote places.
Young Hana's achievement in cinema makes you think about the increasing use of children to deal with adult issues. In this film, the story is almost entirely seen from a children's point of view--making the film agreeable to the viewer, instead of employing shrill adult views on the brutal and non-secular Taliban. Mark Twain did it, and we laughed and enjoyed his work. Some would say children ought to be left to Peter Pan type of stories...or should they be used to discuss what adults are afraid to discuss?
Late news 16 Feb 2008: The film won the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2008 in the Generation section.