May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
June 15, 2009
This weekend’s Iranian presidential election was declared a victory for the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has provoked accusations of fraud and riots in the street; the story is still unfolding, tweet by tweet. Until the dust clears, we can’t know whether it’s been kicked up by something more or less than a revolution or a coup. Or whether on this anniversary of 1989’s events in Eastern Europe and China, the world can hope to see astonishing political realignments — or fear oppression-as-usual ala Tienanmen Square.
Among the news coming out of the election and its aftermath is the word that one of Iran’s best-known filmmakers, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, has assumed a role of international spokesman for the cause of the officially defeated candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi. Speaking Saturday from Paris, Makhmalbaf told the Vienna-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that Moussavi had actually been informed by the Iranian government that he’d won — but that was before the declaration of landslide victory for Ahmadinejad, and subsequent firestorm which is still raging in the country.
For those unfamiliar with Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a quick summary of his unusual career will offer some context for his involvement in the weekend’s events. The director’s evolution from an Islamic Revolutionary, to champion of Iran’s underclasses, to something of a Sufi mystic has been sketched by Gilda Boffa in a recent book of essays on filmmakers and spirituality. In her chapter “From Dogmatism to Mysticism: The Evolution of Faith in Mohsen Makhmalbaf ‘s Cinema,” Boffa begins with an angry young man who hailed the defeat of the Shah’s Iran and rise of the Islamic Republic in 1979. A devout Muslim, Makhmalbaf had virtually no experience with movies when, as a budding playwright, he caught the vision to create a new Islamic Cinema. He worked with government cultural entities to create what were essentially religious and political propaganda films in the early 1980s — films he now himself disparages as preachy, leaden efforts. Disenchanted with ideologically-driven art, Makhmalbaf took up stories with social justice themes in his next period, becoming well-loved for films that shined a bold light on Iranian social problems, under a regime that may have preferred less illumination.
As a maker of films championing the poor, Afghan refugees, or war veterans, Makhmalbaf became an Iranian folk hero — enough to be impersonated by an unemployed fan whose own story came to be told in a film by another Iranian director. The later phase of Makhmalbaf ‘s career saw him journey even farther from ideology, into mysticism, drawing upon non-dogmatic strains of his religion and the ancient poetic sources of Iranian culture — producing a much more open, hopeful (if sometimes abstruse) cinema. “I no longer believe in absolutes and have accepted that I don’t have all the answers ,” Boffa quotes Makhmalbaf as saying — yet he still believes in God, even if “my idea of God has become broader .” It would be most interesting to hear Makhmalbaf describe his journey outside the constraints of an artist who has been — until now at least — committed to that delicate negotiation required to work under a dictatorship.
As David Hudson notes at IFC Daily, since the Friday election, the website for the director’s web site, Makhmalbaf Film House has registered as “dangerous” by virus-detecting browsers — raising the very plausible possibility of cyber-sabotage on the part of Iranian authorities. (An older, cached version of the home page can be seen here, though it is definitely not recommended that you click on any of the links, which will take you back to the infected site. Consider it a way of getting close enough to the battle action to hear the explosions and smell the smoke — just keep your head down.)
Makhmalbaf’s 1988 film, Marriage of the Blessed, told the story a photojournalist trying to recover from a severe case of post-traumatic stress he acquired on an assignment. Like the deranged veterans in the mental ward he shares with them, Haji continually flashes back to the Iran-Iraq War, but also to other horrific images he has seen: of starving African refugees, homeless people, families weeping as a husband and father is taken away by the police, corrupt real estate wheeler-dealers. The film is thoroughly disturbing, full of surrealistic nightmare images as we see the world from Haji’s perspective; one gets the idea that it is Makhmalbaf who is so mercilessly tormented by suffering, and we glimpse what must be naysaying he has personally experienced: Haji is told that he’s not responsible for the world’s suffering, that he likes playing the martyr, that the country’s problems aren’t going to be solved by a few photographs.
During one powerful sequence, his camera keeps finding homeless people sleeping in the dark, jarringly illuminating the presence and plight of such poverty and implicit injustice which his society (and not just his!) would prefer not to think about. That sequence climaxes with police shutting down not only Haji, but also Makhmalbaf and his film crew — who are revealed to be shooting this film, in an example of the sort of reality-questioning that has helped propel Iranian Cinema onto the world stage, and is inherently subversive to the attempted reality-control of a totalitarian regime. Later, Haji checks to see if his provocative photos made it into the paper and finds that his editor has instead chosen to publish a nice, safe picture of a flower. Marriage of the Blessed climaxes with Haji dissolving into mad flashbacks at his wedding. A pitying bystander calls his camera “the anxious eye of the Revolution,” declaring “Let us hear the remembrances of this sorrowful heart.”
It remains to be seen what the effect of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s involvement in this weekend’s violently-disputed election will have on his own journey, and that of his nation. Meanwhile, the possibility that Makhmalbaf is not alone among even the Revolutionary generation in experiencing such a personal evolution may explain the scenes of angry, chanting Iranian crowds this weekend – many of whom were joining in an unexpected chant of “Death” to — not “America” this time — but to “Ahmadinejad,” the Iranian dictator.
Perhaps such scenes shouldn’t be so unexpected. In Marriage of the Blessed, one of the most powerful flashback images is the pan up from fingers on a typewriter to a vista of enemy tanks approaching from across the desert, the clattering of keys mixing with the sound of machine guns in a nightmarish jumble. In my own mind, I find juxtaposing with that image a flashback to that brave protester stopping the tank during the Tienanmen Square uprising, who became a symbol of the relentless human aspiration for freedom. That figure now stands in front of Iranian tanks; if we bystanders can’t do anything else, let’s at least pay attention, and keep the brave figures in front of the tanks in our thoughts, and if we’re so inclined, in our prayers.
Gilda Boffa’s essay can be found in the book Faith & Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, edited by Kenneth Morefield (for which the author of this report contributed the introduction).
Update (6-15-09, 19:00) Quick fixes on a quicker written piece, plus this today from “Anonymous” at Salon:
Finally, and this may be the most important piece of news, I personally heard “Marq bar Khamanei” (death or down with Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei) said quickly and once last night… If true, and I don’t know if it is, this marks a significant turning point. Up until now the chants had been “Marq bar dictator,” with dictator meaning Ahmadinejad. To chant against the supreme leader is an incredible taboo. In 1979, everyone wanted the shah to fall, but no one believed that it was thinkable. Then, for some reason, it became so. The movement reached a moment of viability. While this did not guarantee the revolution’s success, it was a necessary condition for events to move forward. Has the same happened now in Iran?
Also, word that demonstrations in support of the people of Iran are being scheduled around the world.
In addition, the US cities of Houston, Tulsa, Minneapolis, Champaign, Illinois, Amherst, Costa Mesa, and Raleigh have also scheduled rallies over the next few days against the Iranian elections. A former NIAC intern also informed us of a rally in Chicago Tuesday June 16th at 4:30 in the Daley Center. World-wide protests will be held in Melbourne, Berlin, Auckland, Edinburgh, and Geneva.
So many of us have had profound experiences with Iranian Cinema in recent years — and through these felt a connection to Iranian culture and a people in many ways so like our own: we feel a personal stake in this story; I can’t find any further confirmation on the Chicago event, but it seems like a good idea, adding more voices to a new revolutionary slogan: Life to Iran.