The Psychology of The Apple (1998): Abusive Paternalism

Note: This article goes in-depth into an analysis of The Apple‘s various plot points and subtexts. As a result, it is littered with spoilers. You have been warned.

Additional Note: This is a multi-page article. The links to the succeeding pages can sometimes get buried at the bottom of the page.


The Apple is the feature film debut from then 18-year-old Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf. An influential cog in the machine of Iranian New Wave, as well as part of a family of filmmakers (her father is equally influential director Mohsen Makhmalbaf), Samira Makhmalbaf’s first film delves into the nuanced world of children raised in isolation in a docudrama style. Using a real-life family as both actor and subject, Makhmalbaf captures on film a fictional reality of two children first entering society at the age of 12 at the same time that the real-life children were first engaging with the world outside their home.


I. Fiction as a Means of Conveying Reality


A BFI review of The Apple by John Mount correctly comments that the film focuses “firmly on its subject rather than on its making,” in an industry climate when other “self-reflexive” Iranian films were becoming the norm. The film’s fictional narrative is at the forefront, but the reality is evident in the naturalism of the filming and acting style.

Film has been used on numerous occasions to blur the line between reality and fiction, both in Iran, as well as Russia (Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera melds Russian life with the lives of the filmmaker and the moviegoer), Spain (Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread is a fake documentary masquerading as reality to question the authoritative nature of the genre) and other geographic locations across the globe. The United States has even tinkered with the line from time to time (one of my favorite modern comedies, This is the End, engages with celebrity stereotypes using reality identities as a means of creating a meta-textual comedic premise).

The real question in the cases of these films is why engage with reality in this fictionalized manner. For This is the End, the fiction is immediately evident, but the use of reality in character choices works on a comedic level that makes more commentary than a simple apocalypse film would work on.

Land Without Bread attempts an expository voice to depict a false reality in order to make its rhetorical case for a more skeptical viewing lens when it comes to expository documentary.

Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera mixes staged shots of a movie premiere and a filmmaking team at work with actuality footage of a city in working class motion in order to make the case for the importance of film to a functioning society.

Why, then, is The Apple narrativized as fiction when the story has a rich (and very similar) reality to it? I will answer be doing all that I can, and that is to speculate on the nature of this film’s production.

In some ways, fiction can illuminate the nuances of a story’s reality better than mere documentary can. It would be easy to demonize the parents in a situation where children are raised with no connection to the outside world. It would be easy to make this the “objective reality” of a documentary film on the subject. Instead, as Makhmalbaf intended, the parents are depicted as three-dimensional characters with worries and preoccupations of their own. In an interview with The Guardian, it becomes clear that Makhmalbaf wanted the father of Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi to “not be condemned” or painted as “a wicked man.”

This characterization of the Naderi parents enhances the emotional engagement of the film. Seeing the parents as more than simply deadbeat not only raises a bevy of questions regarding child custody, but it also creates a strange sympathy for everyone involved in the situation.

When the roles get reversed, then, and the parents become the ones locked inside the house with the children free to roam the streets, we as a viewer care more about both parties depicted. The reversal becomes less of a comeuppance and more of collective formative moment for the entire family. As Ghorban Ali Naderi (the father) saws through the bars, it is a symbolic awakening of his mind to the new reality that he is facing as well as a moment of triumph for the children who are now liberated from their prison-home.

On page two: The case study of Genie, “The Wild Child”

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