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TitleA closer look at life and work of a famous Iranian director - 2

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, from zealot to ambassador for the Greens

13 Jul 2011

■ Ian Buruma

This is part 2 of Ian Buruma’s piece on life and work of Mohsen Makhmalbaf

It took some time to arrive at this insight, however. In the first few years after the revolution, Makhmalbaf’s satirical arrows were still aimed at Marxism, rather than the oppressive nature of Khomeini’s Islamic state. Shervin Nekuee is a writer, now living in the Netherlands, where he is editor-in-chief of a website called TehranReview. He fled Iran when he was nineteen to avoid the high chance of “martyrdom” in the Iran-Iraq War. Eleven-years-old at the time of the revolution, he noticed how friends and relatives in Teheran quickly divided into passionate devotees of communism, or Islamism. His brother, hitherto a lover of pop music, began to learn Lenin’s texts by heart. Irritated by all this sudden dogmatism, Shervin was much amused by Makhmalbaf’s television play, A Cage Within a Cage, which poked savage fun of the communists. This play later formed the basis of Boycott, which, in Shervin’s words, was like “kicking the leftists when they were already down.”

One of the immediate effects of the 1979 revolution was the suppression of Western culture, including Hollywood movies, as well as the highly popular Indian musical films. But as Makhmalbaf observed, “some bad things can help us in good ways. Before the revolution, Hollywood and Bollywood killed Iranian film. We had zero Iranian films. After the revolution we had the chance to make our own films.” There was suddenly an audience for them. No longer able to see foreign films, and deprived of many other forms of art, such as music and dance, forbidden by the puritanical mullahs, Iranians developed a hunger for Iranian cinema, which was still allowed – possibly, as was suggested to me by several Iranians, because the Ayatollah had neither interest in, or knowledge of the movies. This is when Makhmalbaf’s, and Kiarostami’s films became wildly popular.

Recalling that early post-revolutionary period, Makhmalbaf added that political oppression itself may have helped to make cinema popular: “People wanted images, not words. Images contain fewer lies. Writing is subject to more censorship, more government control.”

This may be so, but images are still censored. Kiarostami’s latest film, Certified Copy, is banned in Iran, supposedly because Juliet Binoche’s dress isn’t sufficiently modest. Makhmalbaf told me that his son’s documentary about Samira cannot be shown in Iranian video clubs because his sister’s headscarf fails to conceal all her hair. And Gabbeh, after all, was banned at least partly for its visual effects, which expressed undesirable hedonism.

In any case, the poetic imagery in Makhmalbaf’s films became more and more metaphorical and surreal. This, too, was a way to avoid censorship. The Afghan refugee in The Bicyclist (1987), for example, going round and round a town square on a bicycle for a week without stopping, as a kind of carnival attraction, to make money to survive, is unforgettable. By then, Makhmalbaf’s had begun to lose faith in the religious revolution. In his words: “When I was seventeen I was ready to die for God… With The Bicyclist I began to move away from religion.”

It is also in this period that Makhmalbaf began to take a serious interest in the plight of the Afghans, millions of whom had fled from war and hunger to Iran, where they were treated with neglect, at best. His most famous movie outside Iran, Kandahar (2001), about a young Canadian-Afghani journalist travelling back to her native country to stop a desperate young woman from committing suicide, is perhaps the only feature film ever made about Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The movie was shot near the Iran-Afghan border. Despite some wooden acting in English, a language Makhmalbaf speaks reasonably well, it is the imagery that sticks in the mind: UN helicopters dropping artificial limbs over the desert, like loaves of bread, chased by hundreds of hopping men maimed by landmines. This, Makhmalbaf said, was the only fictional image in the film, which also features an enigmatic American black Muslim, who came to seek God, but allegedly became a terrorist.

George W. Bush asked for a screening of Kandahar at the White House, presumably to get a better idea of the country he invaded. God only knows what he made of Afghanistan filtered through Makhmalbaf’s surrealistic imagination.

Kandahar was made under the relatively moderate presidency of Mohammad Khatami, when there was some room for artistic expression, including cinema, enough at any rate to be able to make good movies in Iran. But there were still limits. Censorship under Khatami was subtle and rarely straightfoward. Instead of banning critical films, they were allowed only limited release. Kandahar was only screened in one cinema in Teheran.

In 2002 Makhmalbaf made Afghan Alphabet, a documentary about Afghani children in Iran, who were deprived of schooling. All they know is what they hear from Mullahs, who tell young girls that it is sinful to show their faces. One of the problems was the government’s refusal to educate even Afghans who were born in Iran. Makhmalbaf showed the film to Khatami and his advisors: “It made them cry and they signed a permission for Afghan children to go to school. So cinema could still play a role in Iran. ”

After Khatami lost power in 2005, Makhmalbaf was unable to shoot another movie in Iran, and left in that same year. In fact, his most profound films were made in the mid-1990s, when Khatami was a member of the powerful Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution. The films were still political, but in a philosophical way that did not upset the government enough to get them banned. It was no longer the power of this or that group that interested Makhmalbaf, but the nature of power itself. This is when he began to seriously examine what he regards as the flaws in Iranian culture: “Shooting the Shah wouldn’t have changed anything. You must shoot into the minds of people through art to make them see things in a different way. I tried to change our culture by teaching a more relative view.”

Salaam Cinema, the movie that begins with the pandemonium of five thousand actors hoping for an audition, is perhaps Makhmalbaf’s most sophisticated investigation of the dynamics of power. He plays himself, auditioning actors, telling them to do this and that, to cry, to laugh, and probing their desire to be in the movies, to be famous. You can see how the director uses his power to manipulate people into doing things they might not wish to do.

He picks two young women to audition others. They immediately become as manipulative and bullying as the director himself. Makhmalbaf said in Paris: “The two girls succeed, but they become dictators. That is because they reflect Iranian culture. My film is critical of the use of power in the shadow of fundamentalism.” I asked him why crying played such an important part in the auditions. He laughed: “Because people are always being told to cry for God. The main activity of the Mullahs is to make people cry. ‘Cry! Cry for more killing!’” I mentioned that one woman refused to cry. He clapped his hands in delight: “That woman! That woman is Green Movement. That’s what she represents.”

One astonishing thing about Salaam Cinema, a wordy, intellectual work that would be lucky to survive in an American art house for more than a week, was seen in Iran by a million people. Perhaps the success of this film, more than any other, confirms Makhmalbaf’s view that people under a dictatorship crave images with the ring of truth. They recognized that it was about them. “Iranians don’t like to be criticized directly”, Makhmalbaf explained. “But you can give them an example of how to look at themselves. So I criticize myself as an example.”

Criticism of power, in Makmalbaf’s work, also means the criticism of male power over women. This is as much of a theme in his films, and writings, as the suffering of Afghans. In 1984, just five years after the revolution, he wrote a novel, entitled The Crystal Garden, about the tribulations of a number of women living in the servants’ quarters of a house abandoned by a rich family after the revolution. His film, Gabbeh, deals with the patriarchal control of women’s lives. The true story of Kandahar begins when an Afghan refugee in Canada receives a letter from her younger sister who cannot stand living under the Taliban any longer, and says she will kill herself before the imminent eclipse of the sun.

Makhmalbaf married twice. Both his wives worked closely with him on his films. His first wife, Fatimeh Meshkini, with whom he had three children, died of burns after a tragic accident in 1992. During the making of Salaam Cinema, he married her sister, Marzieh. They raised and educated his children themselves, teaching them filmmaking from a very early age. The children learned “by helping out”, said Makhmalbaf, “by working on all levels of filmmaking.” Hana made her first documentary, in Kabul, when she was only thirteen, and Samira, who acted in The Bicyclist, made her first feature film, The Apple, when she was seventeen. Makhmalbaf, the proud patriarch, met me once more in Paris to hand over a pile of DVDs, all films made by his wife and daughters.

The question, not only concerning the Makhmalbaf family, but all artists, especially filmmakers, living in exile, is how their work can be sustained in foreign countries. There are problems of language, cultural familiarity, and of losing a home audience. Not entirely, of course. DVDs of Makhmalbaf’s films, old and new, are smuggled into Iranian underground markets, mostly from the Gulf.

Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-born professor at Columbia University who has lived in the US since the 1980s, told me that national borders don’t matter so much any more: “We live in a different world now. You can operate outside your own country.” He calls Makhmalbaf “a troubadour”, and recalled how in Paris the director would be suddenly embraced in the street by Algerians, who had seen some of his films.

One way of dealing with banishment from Iran is to make films in its periphery. Makhmalbaf has not only made films in Afghanistan, but also in Tajikistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and India. “Language is still a problem,” he acknowledged. When he made A Time of Love (1990) in Istanbul, he had to learn the Turkish dialogue by heart, “so I could control it”. However, he acknowledged, “I could never have made Salaam Cinema in another language.”

There is another factor that has mitigated the problems of exile. Technology has made national borders more porous. Twitter, Youtube and Facebook played vital roles during the protests in Iran after the last election. Makhmalbaf was so excited about these new possibilities that he called the protesters in Teheran transmitting images from their cell-phone cameras “the most honest filmmakers in Iran.” He told The Wall Street Journal that “the thing they are doing is more important than all of the history of our cinema. For the past thirty years, we were trying to reach some kind of reality in art. We used our films like a mirror in front of society. But their images are full of reality. There is no artificiality.” The borders between real life and cinema, always thin in Makhmalbaf’s work, had become seamless in the political revolt.

One can forgive him for the slight hyperbole. But technology did indeed play a vital role in keeping the outside world informed about Iran. The question remains, however, what effect people outside Iran can have on an increasingly rigid and authoritarian country. Kiarostami’s skepticism about the possibility of making good films outside the country one knows best cannot be dismissed. His own last film, Certified Copy, seems to be a perfect illustration of this. An Englishman and a French woman fret about their relationship in a beautiful Tuscan town, switching from English to French to Italian, almost at random. The movie is intelligent, beautifully made, well acted, but oddly sterile, abstract, as though shorn of genuine cultural context. To be sure, Kiarostami’s Iranian movies also tend towards abstraction, but they are still anchored in a way that is plausible, that smells of life instead of just being an intellectual concept.

Makhmalbaf has thought of moving to the US, since he is more comfortable in English than French, but gave up on the idea when he realized he couldn’t possibly make the kind of movies he wants in America. Hollywood, he says, is like a factory: “If you repeat your success, copy yourself out of fear of failure, you become like a factory. I prefer to take risks.”

Then, after a moment of silence, he repeated what he had said in the beginning of our interview: “I hate politics. And I really miss cinema. Ordinary people eat bread. An artist needs to make something, or you lose your identity.” This is not just a question of being distracted by politics, of course. Many conditions are essential for making a movie. They are hard to achieve for a filmmaker at home, let alone for a troubadour in exile. Mohsen Makhmalbaf is one of more than two million Iranians forced by politics to live abroad. The sooner he can return to making the films he wants to, preferably in and around his native country, the better, not only for Iran, but for all lovers of cinema in the rest of the world.

 
Tehran Review
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  1. Nazi says:

    Are you going to write anything about Makhmalbaf’s latest film The Gardener as a part 3 of your article?

    Thanks!

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