Joy of Madness Review
Joy of Madness is a documentary made by 14 year-old Hana Makhmalbaf. The lack of experience that her age would suggest might be a concern to viewers, were it not for the fact that Hana comes from an Iranian family that was born to make movies and has the pedigree of father Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), her mother Marzieh Meshkini (The Day I Became A Woman) and her sister Samira Makhmalbaf, who made her first feature film (The Apple) when she was just 17 years-old. Hana's brother Maysam Makhmalbaf has also followed in the family’s footsteps making a documentary feature How Samira Made “The Blackboard”, included on the DVD of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards. Hana’s introduction to the Makhmalbaf Film House is similarly a ‘making of’ documentary, recording her sister’s attempts to cast her film At Five In The Afternoon in the ruins of life in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
In most respects Joy of Madness is really nothing more than a ‘Making Of’, and were it for any other film, there would be little of interest to anyone who has not seen the film it is documenting, but At Five In The Afternoon is by no means an ordinary film and the way it was made is anything but conventional. The location of both the film and this documentary opens the viewer to the devastation wreaked on the country by both the Taliban and the war that removed them, and shows clearly the effect this has had on the people who live there. Samira, seeking actors from the non-professional, ordinary people she literally comes across on the streets of Kabul, attempts both to cast her film and to also get to know the people she is making a film about. Rather than try to impose a preconceived idea of what life is like in Afghanistan, Samira – although she already has the framework of a plot for her film – is open to incorporating the real-life experiences of the people she wants to be in her film. In any film, this would be something of a challenge in itself, and the kind of abdication of control that a normal director would be reluctant to cede without reasonable assurances about its chances of succeeding.
What is even more remarkable – apart from the fact that Samira does indeed succeed, making an astonishingly accomplished and meaningful film with At Five In The Afternoon - is the fact that the logistics of making a movie to a strict timescale and under a strict budget is infinitely more complex in a place like Afghanistan, with a poor social infrastructure and non-professional actors who are suspicious and mistrustful of the director and her crew. These are people who have suffered secular persecution all their lives and who still adhere to strict religious fundamentalist ideas and prejudices upheld by their parents and neighbours. Samira has tremendous difficulties casting her lead actress, finding girls reluctant to make decisions without their husbands' approval and wary of taking part in an enterprise they know next to nothing about, since there is no film industry in Afghanistan and I’d be surprised if there are even any real movie theatres. One man is concerned that Samira and her crew are going to kill his baby for their film, but he is so poor he is willing to entrust the child to them. Eventually she finds her lead actress to play Nogreh (Agheleh Rezaei), but the arrangements she has to make in order for this to happen are more than most directors would do to attract a top Hollywood movie star.
Such a casting experience not only deepens appreciation for the tremendous strengths and ability of the 22 year-old director Samira to undertake such a task, it alerts us to the belief she has in her work and the people and subjects she makes films about. Hana Makhmalbaf’s documentary shows us that the real-life circumstances of these people are even more bleak and restrictive than Samira’s feature film can show. And that is something worth knowing, making this more than just a mere making of documentary and a film about real people in circumstances that we would otherwise have little knowledge of and could certainly never imagine.
Joy of Madness is released on UK DVD by Tartan (although Samira’s film At Five In The Afternoon is released by Artificial Eye). The DVD is Region Free. Filmed on hand-held digital video, the video quality of the documentary is a little bit rough and ready. The colour tones are dull and lifeless, the image often looks over-exposed or too bright, flaring often in bright natural light. It doesn’t have grain, but it often looks finely pixellated. There’s only so much you can expect of a film made under such conditions, and it appears to be transferred as well as can be expected here at the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The audio is similarly rough and subject to the conditions of the format and the surroundings, but generally copes well and is relatively strong and clear. English subtitles are clear and are removable. The only extra feature on the DVD, apart from the usual Tartan Trailer Reel, is a trailer for At Five In The Afternoon (1:36) itself, which you will certainly want to see after watching this documentary.
I’m not sure that releasing Joy of Madness as a film in its own right was a good idea. Not that the film doesn’t stand on its own and have a purpose beyond the film it is documenting, but it is incredibly difficult to sell this to anyone if they haven’t already seen the magnificent outcome that is Samira Mahkmalbaf’s At Five In The Afternoon. Personally, I found Joy of Madness fascinating and my interest never waned throughout the admittedly short 70 minute running time. Either way, these are two films that really ought to be seen. If you watch Joy of Madness, it will make you want to see At Five In The Afternoon. If you’ve already seen Samira’s film, then Joy of Madness gives it further depth and context and only deepen your admiration for Samira’s achievement. Either way, you can't lose with filmmaking of this standard.