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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Apple

introduction

The Apple is an Iranian film directed by Samirah Makhmalbaf when she was just sevThe Appleenteen years old. It was scripted by her and her father, the well known Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and filmed in Tehran. Released in 1998, it won five awards including one from the London Film Festival. Classed as a docudrama, it tells the true story of eleven year-old twin girls Zahra and Massoumeh Naderi who were kept locked in their home by their parents from the age of two without any contact with the outside world. Their mother is blind and their father an older man who begs for money in return for saying prayers.  Samirah Makhmalbaf became fascinated by the story and arranged an interview with the father, Ghorban Ali Naderi. When he started talking to her, she almost immediately gained his consent to film the family and this started soon after. Makhmalbaf was sure that the girls would begin to change very quickly once they started to meet other children and adults, which is indeed what the viewer sees as the film unfolds. It is unclear quite why the father agreed to the filming but he seems to relish the opportunity to explain the motives for confining his daughters to their home and is clearly very upset by the publicity that the case received.

What is unusual about The Apple is that the family members appear as themselves and tell their story to the camera as the girls are encouraged out into their community by the social worker. The Apple was filmed over an eleven day period beginning almost immediately after the girls returned home from state care. Some scenes show the family members responding to scripted interactions with children outside the home, some of which could be viewed as inappropriate teasing. This could raise ethical questions around the whole family’s ability to consent to such a project and would certainly offer a useful platform for a discussion about the filming of a family actively struggling with issues of psychological health that affect their ability to give informed consent.

It is perhaps interesting to note that, since this film was made, the girls were fostered and have gone on to do well in mainstream education.



The Film

The film opens with evidence that concerned neighbours have signed a petition to the welfare service about the confinement of two girls in their home over many years. Once the situation has been discovered, the eleven year-old twins are taken into state care, where they are found to be developmentally arrested in their use of spoken language and in their interactions with others. They were only allowed back home on the condition that their parents allowed them to socialise normally outside of the home.The film follows the Naderi family closely as they re-enact the immediate days after Zahra and Massoumeh are allowed home whilst they are being monitored in the community by a social worker.

On the social worker’s first visit she finds that the girls are still locked in, behind the bars of their home, contrary to the agreement that was made. She forces their father to let them out on to the streets to play with other children and uses an unorthodox intervention (I understand that this was scripted) to make him empathise with how his daughters may have felt during their imprisonment. Out in the community the girls encounter things that other children take for granted, like a young boy selling ice creams and another young boy who dangles an apple on a string as he lures them to the local fruit shop (this was another of the scripted interventions) in a scene reminiscent of the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. Keeping the viewer on edge about the outcome of this interaction, this is a particular example of the powerful storytelling represented by the film.The apple of the title perhaps represents the life which the girls finally get to taste as they explore and experience a wealth of new situations. One of the more interesting encounters occurs between the twins and two other young girls who are playing hopscotch in a park, as it demonstrates the twins’ lack of ability to play appropriately for their age. However, with the kind and tolerant responses of their new found playmates, they appear to learn certain ‘rules of engagement’ quite quickly.

But what is especially interesting are the scenes at home between the two girls when they are alone together, using their unique form of communication, which show them seemingly quite happy and playful in their close sisterly relationship. One suspects that this aspect of their emotional development has been positive enough to allow them to engage effectively with the world and with mainstream education when they are finally given the chance.

 

 

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

The Apple provides an excellent opportunity for discussing the ways in which health professionals can assess children and families from a different culture who speak another language. It also encourages the viewer to reflect on the underlying motivations of each parent in this case and to try and understand why they took the extreme action of locking their daughters up in the home for so long. It is because the film tells its story in such a non-judgmental manner that this process is fostered and it reminds us that we should always strive to understand the underlying context for any presenting problem when carrying out a full psychiatric assessment.

But it is because the film uses the girls themselves to enact the early days after they are released out into their local community that makes it such interesting and relevant viewing for mental health professionals. The viewer is quite literally watching changes occur in the twins’ ability to communicate and negotiate as they meet with other children and adults outside their home, whether in spontaneous or in scripted interactions.

The Apple could be viewed alongside a reading of an article called Developmental assessment by Patrick Bolton, published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment in 2001, and available in full online (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2001)

7: 32-40), as a valuable teaching package. The fact that the film is not in English, makes the assessment all the more challenging but equally relevant in our diverse and multi-cultural society.

With the focus, in this film, on the role of the social worker in the community as the health professional that we see, there is also scope for comparison across cultures and to consider how such a case might be dealt with in the UK by health and social services. At times painful and poignant, The Apple will almost certainly stay with the viewer for some time after watching it.

• More information about The Apple can be found at IMDB, and a short trailer is available on youtube.

The Apple can be purchased at amazon.co.uk.

• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.