Cinema Is a Potent Generator of Change, Says Iranian Filmmaker During Israel Visit

Mohsen Makhmalbaf was the first Iranian director whose films were commercially released in Israel. Now the former anti-Shah activist, who became equally critical of his country's Islamic regime, brings his new film to this week's Jerusalem film festival.

It’s not often that one has a chance to talk to a veteran film director who is still passionate about cinema and art, and who despite his rich oeuvre feels that for him every new film is the start of a new journey and another adventure. That was the nature of my meeting with Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 56, who is a guest of the Jerusalem Film Festival in honor of the screening of his new movie, “The Gardener,” which was filmed in Israel.

Makhmalbaf is the first Iranian director to have a film disseminated commercially in Israel ‏(“Gabbeh,” in 1996‏), and its screening aroused great excitement at the time. He says that the authorities called him in at the time for a clarification and wanted him to explain why he had permitted a film of his to be shown in an enemy country. During our conversation he described cinema as a pistol, later on as a weapon; he believes in the power of cinema, and of art in general, to bring about change.

Makhmalbaf noted that one of the problems in Egypt today is that the revolution there is not accompanied by a cultural revolution, without which there is no chance for the change for which the Egyptian people are hoping. Gathering in Tahrir Square is not enough, he says. The revolution also has to take place in cinema, in literature, in culture in general, only then will there be a change in the way people perceive the reality in which they live.

In general, reality is an important word for Makhmalbaf, and it comes up repeatedly in conversation, even if he admits at one point that there is no one reality; everyone has his own reality and his own perception of it. But he feels that the role of cinema is to cause us to see this reality, to be aware of it and to know it differently. Only in that way will there be a change in our awareness, and only such a change can lead to a revolution.

“Cinema enables us to look into each other’s eyes,” says Makhmalbaf, “just as we, who are now sitting opposite one another, are looking into each other’s eyes. Looking the other person in the eye is the condition for creating understanding and brotherhood. When you look into someone else’s eyes, really look, hostility and hatred are no longer possible. The role of cinema is to enable you to experience this.”

Uniqueness of the Bahai

Serenity and peace are also the characteristics of the Bahai religion, which is one reason Makhmalbaf chose to make his new film, “The Gardener,” about it. The film is lyrical, beautiful and moving, and was filmed mostly in the gardens of the Bahai center in Haifa. He did the shooting almost in secret, using small video cameras, together with his son, Maysam Makhmalbaf. The Bahai religion was founded in Iran in the mid-19th century, and its many followers who live in Makhmalbaf’s homeland are persecuted there by the government. In his film the director wanted to present this religion and its message to his own people and to the entire world, but there is no chance that the film will be screened in Iran. As in the case of many of his previous films, the censor will not allow it to be shown. “The Gardener” deals with the Bahai religion but is also much more, and its additional layers are related to the presence in the film of the director and his son.

Why did you choose to make the film with your son?

“I wanted the film to constitute a dialogue between us about the essence of religion. There are those who ... reject any religion, because religion is a bad thing, which has always been a source of all the problems in our world. I define myself as an agnostic, I state that already at the beginning of the film, but when I delved deeper and deeper into the study of the Bahai religion I discovered how different its message is from that of other religions, how democratic it is. That of course is a message of utmost importance to me, as someone who fought against both the Shah’s regime and that of the ayatollahs, who I at first believed would bring healing to the Iranian people.

“In the film Maysam represents the more extreme and uncompromising attitude towards religion, any religion, and I represent the more moderate approach, which believes that every religion must be judged by its belief. This is a two-camera film; my camera and his, and the dialogue in the film between me and my son takes place not only in our conversations but also in the way that each of us uses the camera he is holding.”

Makhmalbaf was born to a poor single mother in southern Tehran in 1957. His grandmother, who was devoutly religious, would drag him almost daily to the mosque and tell him that if he went to the movies he would end up in hell. He left school, joined an underground movement that fought against the Shah’s regime, and at the age of 17 was arrested for stabbing a policeman during a demonstration, tortured and sent to prison for five years. Only his young age saved him from the hangman’s noose, he says.

In prison he began writing short stories and novels − to date he has published over 20 books − and began reading about the cinema. What he read excited him and was connected to his encounter with the other political prisoners. Almost intuitively he realized that cinema was the most suitable art for telling these stories.

“In cinema you can describe reality indirectly, and you can say things that can’t be said directly. If they were said directly the result would be flat and simplistic, as in the propaganda films whose production is encouraged by the Iranian regime,” he says. “Censorship is a bad thing, and I suffered a great deal from it; many of my films were banned in Iran. But it also forces you to deal with it by creating a new cinematic language, one with an allegorical essence, and that was one of the advantages of what is called the New Wave in Iranian cinema, to which I belong.”

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Makhmalbaf was released from prison. At first he supported the revolution, thinking that it would bring freedom to his people. He continued to write short stories and novels, and eventually he even tried writing plays and scripts. In 1981 he wrote his first screenplay for a film called “The Explanation,” and in 1983 he directed his first film, “Tobeh Nosuh.” Since then he has directed a film almost every year.

Among his films are “Boycott,” in 1985, the story of a young man sentenced to death during the reign of the Shah due to his communist opinions ‏(a large part of what is described in the film, says Makhmalbaf, is based on what he himself experienced while in prison‏); “The Peddler,” in 1986, which showed scenes from the lives of the poor in Iran; and “The Cyclist” in 1987, which presented the story of an Afghan refugee who rides his bicycle incessantly in the city square to raise money for an operation to save his sick wife; this film brought Makhmalbaf international recognition for the first time.

In his next films his art matured and ripened. These works include “Time of Love,” from 1990, which is composed of three stories, with the same woman and two men appearing in all of them, but the relations between them change; “Salam Cinema,” in 1995, which was produced in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema and describes the series of auditions conducted by a director for the actors who gathered at the entrance to the studio in the wake of an advertisement that Makhmalbaf himself published in the newspaper; “Gabbeh,” a lovely legend centering on figures who come to life from the traditional Persian rug that gave the film its name; and “A Moment of Innocence,” from 1996, which may be Makhmalbaf’s masterpiece and is his most autobiographical film, describing his arrest at the age of 17 and his time in prison.

Calling A’jad a ‘terrorist’

Over time Makhmalbaf regretted his support for the Islamic revolution, which turned out to be just as belligerent, despotic, oppressive and corrupt as the regime it replaced. Makhmalbaf left Iran, first for Tajikistan, where in 1997 he directed “The Silence”; and in 2001 he moved to Afghanistan and directed one of his most famous films, “Kandahar,” the story of a Canadian woman of Afghan origin who travels to Kandahar during the period of Taliban rule, after her sister who lives there informs her that she is about to commit suicide.

Makhmalbaf left Iran for good in 2005 after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in one interview the director called a “terrorist,” was elected president. Makhmalbaf lived for a while in Paris and now lives in London. When I ask him whether he feels any optimism about the future of his country after Hassan Rohani, whom he supported, was elected president, his reply is hesitant, almost evasive, on the order of “we’ll see what happens.” There is no question that Makhmalbaf would like to return to his homeland, to open the eyes of its inhabitants, to arouse their consciousness.

“The type of cinema that my colleagues and I created in Iran was a product of the economic, social and political conditions in which we made those films. In that sense there is a similarity between our films and those made in Italy during the neo-realistic wave towards the end of World War II and in its aftermath,” he says. “Cinema, in order to be relevant and meaningful, must stem from the specific conditions in which it was created and must relate to those conditions.”

Emil Salman