TitleA closer look at life and work of a famous Iranian director-1

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, from zealot to ambassador for the Greens

11 Jul 2011

■ Ian Buruma
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This is the first part of a two-part piece by Ian Buruma on Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The second part will be posted on this website on Wednesday

Salaam Cinema (1994), one of the masterpieces of Iranian film, begins with a riot. Thousands of delirious people, men and women, press and push and shove their way towards a school building, desperate to get inside. It looks like a kind of religious stampede, or a rock concert run out of control, with waves of screaming people threatening to break over earlier waves of humanity crushed against the gates. The religion in this case is cinema. And the scene is absolutely real. To celebrate the centennial of film, an advertisement was placed in a Teheran newspaper asking for one hundred actors to audition for a new movie by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the most popular director in Iran. Five thousand people turned up.

Such films by Makhmalbaf as Salaam Cinema and Gabbeh (1995) drew millions of people in Teheran alone. He was so celebrated that in one well-known case a man went around town pretending to be him and offering people parts in his next film. This imposture prompted the no less celebrated Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, to make a film entitled Close-Up (1988), starring Makhmalbaf as himself.
Makhmalbaf can no longer live, or work in Iran. Firmly on the side of political reform, he left after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, and is persona non grata in his own country. Two years ago he used his movie fame to enter politics as the overseas spokesman for the reformist candidate in the last presidential elections, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. When large numbers of Iranians were convinced that Ahmedinejad had robbed Mousavi of his rightful victory through fraud, hundreds of thousands protested in the streets of Teheran. Many were arrested, tortured, and in some cases killed. Makhmalbaf wrote in The Guardian of London: “I have been given the responsibility of telling the world what is happening in Iran. The office of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who the Iranian people truly want as their leader, has asked me to do so.”

And so he became a kind of roving ambassador for Mousavi’s Green Movement, giving interviews, writing op-ed pieces, donating his film prizes to the Green Movement, and making the rounds of various European capitals, the European Parliament, and the White House. He says he no longer has time to make films because he is too busy “working for the Iranian people”.

Speaking for political candidates is not normally the role of artists, but then the situation in Iran is not normal, nor is Mousavi a normal politician, or indeed Makhmalbaf a normal filmmaker. In fact, the two have some important things in common. In 1979, a painter and architect by training, Mousavi represented the leftwing of the Islamist revolution. His intellectual hero – like Makhmalbaf’s – was the philosopher Ali Shari’ati, who combined revolutionary Marxist rhetoric with Shia Islam. Mousavi’s other hero was Che Guevara. As a Muslim activist he was much favored by the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom he served as prime minister until 1989. When a constitutional change abolished the prime ministership, he retired from politics.

Makhmalbaf, revealing as much about himself as the politician he champions, wrote about Mousavi: “Previously, he was revolutionary, because everyone inside the system was a revolutionary. But now he’s a reformer. Now he knows Gandhi – before he knew only Che Guevara. If we gain power through aggression we would have to keep it through aggression. That is why we’re having a green revolution, defined by peace and democracy.”
This is pretty much a summing up of Makhmalbaf’s own trajectory, from a religious revolutionary zealot to a liberal critic of the Islamic regime. Not all Iranian artists see it as their role to be activists in exile. Kiarostami, seventeen years older than Makhmalbaf, has avoided political comment in his films, or acting as a public dissident. As a result, he can still move in and out of Iran, while Makhmalbaf, like many other Iranian artists and intellectuals, can’t go back. Exile is not always a matter of choice. And the question whether it is better to pull one’s punches to work inside a dictatorship, or to speak out and take the artistic and political consequences of enforced exile, is not unique to contemporary Iran. But a recent public spat between Kiarostami and another filmmaker in exile, Bahman Ghobadi, born in 1969, set out the stakes quite clearly.

Kiarostami attacked Ghobadi, who made the well-received No One Knows About Persian Cats, about the underground rock music scene in Iran, for making a sensational film, and abandoning Iran. He stated in an interview for the Iranian press: “If Bahman Ghobadi thinks there are better circumstances for creating movies outside of Iran, I congratulate him. But for me, personally, I don’t believe in leaving Iran. The place I can sleep comfortably is my home.” Ghobadi, who hardly chose to leave Iran, answered, in an open letter, that Kiarostami had the right to remain silent, while his countrymen suffered, but not the right to criticize others for speaking out. He added that: “The people will not forget the silence of artists.”

In fact, Kiarostami has not kept entirely silent. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival he protested against the incarceration of Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker (The Circle) who supported Mousavi and was openly critical of Ahmedinejad’s regime. Makhmalbaf has not attacked his old mentor, Kiarostami, but his choice was already made in 2005: better to brave the lonely freedom of exile than enjoy the dubious comfort of being the most famous film director under a dictatorship at home. And by the way, Kiarostami’s most recent film, Certified Copy, shot in Italy and starring the French actress Juliet Binoche, has been banned in Iran.


A slim man with large mournful eyes, Makhmalbaf now carries a French passport. He lives in a simple apartment in Paris with his family, all of whom are filmmakers involved in one way or another in each other’s work. The Makhmalbaf Film House, whose website is handled from London by the son, Maysam, is very much a family enterprise. Makhmalbaf’s wife, Marziyeh Meshkini, has made two award-winning films, scripted by her husband. His daughter, Samira, has made five, two scripted by her father, and one based on one of his novels. Maysam has made a documentary of Samira directing a film. The youngest daughter, Hana, was the last to leave Iran after making a fine documentary, entitled Green Days, about the 2010 election. Hana and Samira assisted their father in a documentary about Afghan children, Afghan Alphabet (2001), for which Marziyeh did the stills. And so on and on.

“I really hate politics”

I met Makhmalbaf at his preferred hangout, a touristy café on the Boulevard Saint Michel. He arrived on his motorcycle, sat down at a table inside, ordered a Coke, and declared with great feeling: “I really hate politics.”

For a man who professes to hate politics, Makhmalbaf always was a profoundly political figure. He was born in Teheran in 1957. His first dramatically political act was the knifing of a policeman, when the Shah was still ruling the country in 1973. Makhmalbaf was part of a group of teenage Islamist rebels. The attack on the cop was botched, Makhmalbaf was shot in the stomach, and he spent five years in prison where he was tortured by the notorious SAVAK. Among other torments, he was whipped on the soles of his feet with telephone cables, while strapped to a seat tilted backwards, known as “the Apollo chair”.

His prison experience, as a young Islamist surrounded by hardened communists, is dramatized in Boycott (1985) one of his earliest films, and the stabbing of the policeman is the subject of A Moment of Innocence (1995), which shows both the point of view of the cop and of the young rebel. In a bizarre twist, which nicely matches the cinematic world of Makhmalbaf, or indeed Kiarostami, a world where fantasy and reality are never very distinct, the actual policeman turned up as one of the aspiring actors for Salaam Cinema. He was turned down, but this episode is then used in A Moment of Innocence. Many directors, like novelists, mine their own lives to enrich their art. Few do it as much as Makhmalbaf, whose life and films are intertwined in a way that is almost seamless.

Makhmalbaf began to question his revolutionary zeal in prison. He despised the communists, whom he regarded as dogmatic Stalinists, whose endless arguments about doctrine were remote from what was happening in the streets. This is certainly the picture you get from Boycott, a propaganda film for the clerical regime which had already turned against the leftists by then and executed a large number of them. The movie is shot much like a popular thriller, with crude zoom shots, wild over-acting, and an over-excited score. But despite the callow style and the heavy-handed anti-communist message designed to help Khomeini’s regime, the underlying theme is typical of much of Makhmalbaf’s work: the conflict between private passions, and the desire to fight, or die, for a great cause.

The young rebel in Boycott is torn in this way. In the course of “saving society”, he is arrested by the Shah’s police for being a terrorist. The communist leaders in prison want him to make a great political statement in court, and die a hero’s death, whereas the young man would really much prefer to stay alive and see his wife and child again. In the end he is executed anyway, on a rainy day, alone, without heroics, still full of doubts. The communists then spin a myth of glorious martyrdom around his ignominious death.

But the problem in Iran, as Makhmalbaf sees it, went deeper than leftist dogmatism, or indeed clerical authoritarianism. In the Shah’s prison, he had a kind of conversion. He began to reject political dogma of any kind and turned to Iranian culture as his main concern. In Paris he told me: “I realized in prison that our culture had a problem with democracy. If you only believe in one God, in one religion, and that only one country, Iran, is favored by God, then truth can just be one thing, and you end up with a dictator. That is why later, little by little I tried to clean things up in my mind, by reading books, by travelling, and finding out what is true in a relative way. That is how I ended up expressing myself through art.”

“I realized in prison that our culture had a problem with democracy”

He had come a long way, from inauspicious beginnings. The son of an illiterate public bathhouse operator and a nurse, who were married for only six days, Makhmalbaf was raised mostly by three women: his mother, who kept the household going, his grandmother, who made him a strict Muslim, and his aunt, a schoolteacher, who inspired a love of reading. His stepfather, a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, instructed him about politics.

Aspects of his peculiar childhood resurface in several films, including films by his own children. The absent father figures in Silence (1997), about a blind musician in Tajikistan. Not only is he fatherless, but the young musician is warned to put his fingers in his ears when he goes out, lest he be led astray by pretty tunes. Makhmalbaf likes to tell the story of his own pious grandmother, who ordered him to shut his ears and eyes outside the house to block out sinful sights and sounds. Mahmalbaf wrote the script for his daughter Samira’s brilliant film, The Apple (1998), about a true story of two young girls who were confined to their house for years by their religious father, out of fear that they would be ruined by worldly corruption. Makhmalbaf himself was locked up at home, as a young boy, to prevent his father from kidnapping him.

Already deeply religious – Makhmalbaf was a seminary student in the holy city of Qom – his piousness was pushed into a revolutionary direction when he was fifteen after hearing a four-hour speech by Ali Shari’ati, the same thinker who influenced Mousavi. Inspired by this, he started a library with other young friends, and collected all of Shari’ati’s works. But words were not enough. Like the young hero in Boycott, he felt the time was ripe for saving society through an act of martyrdom, in the spirit of Shari’ati’s rhetoric. When I asked Makhmalbaf what had attracted him to Shari’ati’s ideas, he stressed Shari’ati’s charismatic style: “He was our teacher. His speeches were like poems. He spoke from the heart, with the power of poetry. Listening to him, I was shaking with emotion.”

It wasn’t so much what Shari’ati said, it seems, as the way he said it that excited the young Makhmalbaf: the poetry, the emotion. But Shari’ati’s blend of leftist ideas and religious puritanism was an inspiration behind the revolution that made temporary allies of religious zealots and Marxist revolutionaries. The power of poetic images, rather than narrative, is also a mark of Makmalbaf’s films, and indeed of many Iranian films. The reason, in his view, lies in the nature of Iranian culture: “Because of Islamic restrictions, we didn’t have a painting tradition like in the West.” What he meant is a tradition of realism; depiction of the human figure is forbidden in Islam. Islamic art is abstract, and this might have contributed to a strong leaning towards poetic metaphor even in Iranian cinema, instead of realism. Makhmalbaf put it this way: “We have no understanding of painting in Iran. In Europe cinema comes from painting. In our cinema we use poetic imagery. Sometimes I translate poetry into images directly.”

In Gabbeh, for example, poetry as well as the images woven into a carpet tell the story of a young woman who wants to go off and marry a romantic horseman, glimpsed in the hills, howling like a wolf. Much is made in the movie of the power of color: “Life is color, death is black.” At several points in the film, women actually draw colors from the carpet to apply them to scenes of real life, as though the story were woven from pictures in the rug. The images are poetic, but the politics are not far below the surface. Even the use of color as a metaphor is pregnant with meaning when all women are forced to wrap themselves in black. It was a bold film to make in a country where art and music are suppressed as much as sexual and political liberties. No wonder the film was banned for several years.

Makhmalbaf grew disillusioned with Shari’ati’s revolutionary zeal, and began to question his own politics when the 1979 revolution had hardened into a brutal dictatorship. He now says: “Shari’ati, despite his poetry, his power, his knowledge, justified revolution to create another prison for our culture. I still love him, but Khomeini’s ideology came from Shari’ati’s ideas.”

Tehran Review
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  1. ali says:

    Could you enlighten us with Mr. Makhmalbaaf’s revolutionary credentials??!! He attacked a police officer with a knife during the time of Shah. Like a thug or basiji militia’s now. The police officer wasn’t a politician or one who followed any articular ideals. He had a wife and children who Mr. Makhmalbaf had no concern about. He attacked this police office as a “laat” who carries a knife. This regime upon its inception started using “laat e mo’men” as its cronies. Mr. Makhmalbaaf was given this opportunity because his bosses were thugs just like him. There are plenty more of his examples within the regime. Mr Makhmalbaaf used the Green movement as an opportunity to move out of Iran and enhance his film corporation with his family. No better way to get on the map and get a hand out from US but to act as a Green movement ambassador! Did Mr. Makhmalbaaf ever apologize for his crimes against the Iranian people by siding with Velayat e Faghih or using and abusing people to make a films as he did in Salam Cinema? No he didn’t. He is an opportunist, stop making him into something he is not or you are a culprit. Please print this and don’t sensor my comments.

  2. Sahand says:


    Your comments are published and not consored, however, they don’t make sense. Makhmalbaf left Iran before the elections. Also, the writer never paints a pretty picture of the young Makhmalbaf. But maybe you want more harsh judgment without nuance. There’s plenty of dogmatic tracts where you can find that.

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