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Film Review: Buddha Collapsed out of Shame

The tragic first film by Hana Makhmalbaf, the latest scion of the extraordinary talented Iranian film-making family.

Those Makhmalbafs are amazing. Beavering away in Iran, the family of five just keep churning out the most fantastic films (including Kandahar and The Day I Became A Woman), seemingly without any serious financial backing.

The most recent offering comes from youngest daughter, Hana. The 19-year-old director is the youngest of three to rise from a film school run by their dad, Mohsen. She was just eight when she showed her first film at the Locarno International festival, and just 14 when she screened her documentary about her sister Samira’s Cannes award-winning film, At Five in the Afternoon.

Hana’s first film as a grown-up, Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame, is almost too painful to watch.

It shows a day in the life of a six-year-old girl whose home is a barely-habitable Afghan cave. All she wants is to go to school to learn "funny stories", but she doesn’t have a notebook, pen or the first clue where the nearest school is. She’s also meant to baby-sit her brother while her mum’s away, but wide-eyed Bakhtay is a tough cookie who won’t – she thinks – be thwarted. She ties up the baby so he can’t escape, and heads out in search of schooling.

She sells food for a notebook and steals lipstick for a pen – but she hadn’t reckoned on the nasty attitudes of the Afghan folk outside the caves.  She didn’t know that boys play "games" to imitate the Taliban, that they capture "infidel" girls with pretty eyes and school books, cover their heads and dig shallow graves in which to stone them.  She didn’t know and now it’s too late; no one knows where she is.

Like Bjork’s character, Selma, in Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark, Bakhtay is so heart-crushingly innocent that it rips your heart out to see her hurt. She, like Selma, is too clueless to help herself.

And so Bakhtay’s day-long journey of self-discovery leads to a depressing conclusion - one quite at odds with the feeling of euphoria that started it.

To a backdrop of subsistence farming and the rubble of the Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban in 2001, Bakhtoy succumbs to her reality. The boys with their talk of terrorists and war encircle her.

“Lie down!” yells her one friend in the world, a weak young boy who introduced her to the concept of school this morning. “Dying is the only way to be free”.

Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame is on at the ICA in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford until August 14. It will be released on DVD later in the year.