Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five In The Afternoon, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie), a tenacious young Afghan woman desperate to gain a proper education. As we follow her story, we also see the struggles of the women she meets and the consideration she affords them.
The film strives for a certain realism, but cannot help taking a political agenda with it. At the girls’ school, when a survey is taken to see which job everyone aspires to, almost everyone seems keen on being either an engineer or a doctor, but when a select few stand up for ‘president of Afghanistan’, Noqreh included, they are laughed back down. Later on, the girls strike up a debate independently which raises questions about Afghan identity and what it is to be a woman. The scene is surprisingly moving, its key disputants filled with precocious conviction.
Makhmalbaf does a great job of subtly uprooting the restraints on women, as in the scene where two girls, thrown from a carriage for lifting their veils, run freely into the distance. Despite the heavy-handed themes of the film, there are moments of relief, particularly in the recurring motif of decorative blue umbrellas. As in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, a similarly politically-minded film, it is sometimes hard to understand the intended effect of the lighter scenes, but it is impossible not to be charmed by Noqreh’s confident attempts to communicate with a NATO soldier she wrongly believes is American.