A Filmmaker at the Barricades: The Cinematic and Political Evolution of Mohsen Makhmalbaf
by Rahul Hamid

Filmmaker, revolutionary, opposition spokesperson, and expatriate Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Filmmaker, revolutionary, opposition spokesperson, and expatriate Mohsen Makhmalbaf

The cinema of Mohsen Makhmalbaf reflects the turbulent times and dramatic transformations that the man and his nation have undergone in the last thirty years. Unlike most world-class filmmakers, Makhmalbaf has never settled into a signature style; his work is constantly changing, marked by a strong desire to explore and critique the political conflicts and social issues that define the Islamic Republic of Iran. Makhmalbaf has never merely been a commentator, making judgments from the sidelines, but rather an active participant, first in the 1979 revolution, later in the newly formed Islamic government, and finally as an exiled spokesman for reform.

The streets of Iran’s cities are only temporarily quiet; the situation remains fluid and may be quite different when this issue goes to press. The last few weeks have seen the most substantial challenge to the power of the Mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic. Massive, violent protests erupted over the questionable results of the presidential election between the incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the reform candidate, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. Ahmadinejad was declared the victor a few hours after the election had begun and there were multiple discrepancies, including a suspiciously low vote for Mousavi in his home city, reports of intimidation at the polls, and a bullying pro-Ahmadinejad bias on the part of the Guardians Council, a government corps tasked with overseeing the election. Mousavi’s supporters have been arrested; his campaign headquarters raided, and unknown numbers of protesters have been jailed.

The sheer intensity and defiance of the unrest forced the Guardian Council—appointed by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—to admit that there were irregularities in the election, a rare concession from a body so close to the man who holds dictatorial power over the country. Makhmalbaf was a central figure in the controversy, serving as Mousavi’s international spokesman, and has been instrumental in articulating the opposition’s perspective for the rest of the world.

Mousavi and Makhmalbaf share a similar past. Both fought against the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, during the Seventies and held positions in the new Islamic government of the Eighties. Mousavi served as prime minister from 1981 until 1989, guiding the country through the trauma of the war with Iraq. After leaving office, Mousavi continued to hold positions of authority, but has become increasingly disaffected by the regime, culminating in his run against Ahmadinejad. In a June 20th Op-Ed in The Guardian, Makhmalbaf compares the protesters of today with the Islamic anti-Shah revolutionaries of 1979:

"Thirty years ago we supported each other. When police use tear gas, fires would be lit to neutralize its effects. People would set their own cars on fire to save others. Since then, the government has tried to separate the people from each other. What we lost was our togetherness, and in the past month we have found that again. All the armed forces in Iran are only enough to repress one city, not the whole country. The people are like drops of water coming together in a sea."

The revolution was a populist, nationalist movement. It was Islamic in large part as a means of proclaiming Iranian identity in protest of the Shah’s political and economic ties to the U.S. and Great Britain and his policy of westernizing the country. As those impulses evolved into the creation of a theocratic state, revolutionaries like Mousavi and Makhmalbaf found themselves opposed to a government they helped create. As a filmmaker, Makhmalbaf’s international reputation helped to humanize the regime in the eyes of the rest of the world. Ironically, that worldwide acclaim and the power of images are precisely the tools that the director seeks to mobilize to bring about progressive reform.

As Prime Minister, Mousavi, who studied painting and architecture, created arts initiatives to promote the revolution and Islamic values, which became the institutional home and provided the financial infrastructure for the internationally acclaimed Iranian cinema of the last two decades. These government and quasigovernmental arts agencies are where Makhmalbaf got his start as a director. Right from the start, politics and cinema were intimately tied together for Makhmalbaf; the camera was a tool of revolution. Today, Makhmalbaf still sees the radical potential of the media, calling the Mousavi protests a “cultural revolution and an internet revolution,” in a June issue of Variety. He goes on to say that, “All the students have become filmmakers now with their mobile phones.” The media, then, is a democratic weapon, opening the closed society of Iran, airing its dirty laundry. This impulse to allow events and new perspectives to alter his cinematic point of view mark his unique career.

Born to a lower middle-class and religious Tehran family, Makhmalbaf was active in politics from an early age. As a young anti-Shah militant in the Seventies Makhmalbaf formed a revolutionary cell dedicated to Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideals of nationalism and religious renewal. Makhmalbaf was arrested for attacking a policeman and spent two years in prison. His release coincided with the beginning of the new regime and Makhmalbaf began working to support it. With government support he formed a kind of ministry of propaganda designed to promote Islamic thought and the new state. Cinema of all kinds was banned at the start of the Republic, so Makhmalbaf had exclusive access to a whole library of films and was able to begin his cinematic education at a time when all the movie theaters in the country were dark. Under Mousavi cinema returned to Iran, but its revival was to be a means to Islamicize society. Makhmalbaf made his first films, in 1982, with this idea in mind.

Makhmalbaf did not attend a film school. He learned by watching films and reading books on filmmaking. His first films (1982-1984)— Nasuh’s RepentenceTwo Sightless Eyes, and Fleeing From Evil to God —were rather crude religious allegories extolling the value of a return to Muslim values and a pious life. Boycott (1985) marks an esthetic advance and a turn towards a more personal and introspective cinema. It is also a rejection of the strictly ideological and extreme. It tells the story of an anti-Shah revolutionary, Valeh, who, like Makhmalbaf, is arrested and jailed for assaulting a policeman. Valeh is pulled at from all sides: his revolutionary comrades urge him towards ever increasing action, finally to become a suicide bomber, while on the other side the brutal secret police, the Savak, track his every move and his jailers beat him for information. At home, he is a new father and the desire to be with his family adds another dimension to his dilemma. Valeh, as played by future director Majid Majidi ( Children of HeavenThe Color of ParadiseThe Song of Sparrows ), appears constantly exhausted, his face harrowed by the difficulties of life and his predetermined doom. The style of the film reflects Valeh’s conflict and Makhmalbaf’s experiments with finding the right cinematic language to express it. To capture the constantly harried Valeh’s position, Makhmalbaf uses frequent camera movement and abrupt editing. As his career continues, he finds subtler cinematic means to depict inner turmoil.

Makhmalbaf has periodized his own work into developmental phases, based upon his growing sophistication as a filmmaker and his changing interests as he has grown older. His work can also be categorized according to a few themes to which he has returned in different fashion, almost all of which can be found in Boycott. His early work is largely dominated by a desire to understand and analyze his radical past, whether that is his direct political involvement in the revolution or the instances of deprivation and societal inequity that drove him to become a militant. The exhaustion, extremity, and exploitation of Boycott mark his next two features, The Peddler (1987) and The Cyclist (1989). In these films, however, Makhmalbaf strays from realism and begins more extensive experiments with subjectivity and using a multiperspectival approach. The Peddler is a triptych of cruel stories of poverty, one based on a short story by the much-adapted Italian novelist Alberto Moravia ( The ConformistContempt). The stories feature crippled children, invalids, and murder. Makhmalbaf’s tone varies from the tragic to the comic and uses distorted lenses and extreme close-ups to enhance the grotesque nature of his subject and to move between realism and expressionism. The Cyclist tells the story of Nasim, an Afghan refugee, who rides a motorcycle without stopping for three days to earn money for his ill wife, who has been refused entrance to the hospital for lack of funds. Makhmalbaf takes what is inherently sensationally cinematic material, in the endurance bike riding, and drains it, to the best of his ability, of any visual pleasure. In the dusty, desperate landscape of the film, Nasim is pushed beyond exhaustion; he must eat, use the bathroom, and stay awake as he constantly circles. The camera mirrors the motion of the bike, giving a sense of Nasim’s Sisyphean task. It is not heroic or exciting, but grim and necessary.

The beautiful A Moment of Innocence (1996) completes the cycle of films that examine Makhmalbaf’s past. Made nearly a decade after the first films,and influenced by the style of Kiarostami and the self-reflexivity of the Iranian New Wave, it is a more introspective and complex film than his earlier cris de coeur. The film replays the incident with the policeman that landed him in jail. In the film Makhmalbaf examines how the main players, the policeman and the boy, come to their crucial shared moment. The boy cares about politics, but also about impressing a girl, and the policeman—about the same age as the boy, from a small town—is standing in uniform because it is the best job he can get. Superimposed on this narrative is the story of the making of the film, the casting and training of the nonprofessional actors, featuring Makhmalbaf himself. The film is about the vanity of middle age, nostalgia, and the director’s ever-present dictum to avoid totalizing explanations in favor of nuance and shades of meaning.

Women’s place in Iranian society and their treatment under Islamic law are major themes in Makhmalbaf’s work both within the world of his films and as a father and husband. He has written and promoted films directed by his wife, Marzieh Meshkini, and daughters Samira and Hana. Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (2000) and Samira’s The Apple (1998) are two of the most distinguished of these “family” films. The Dayfeatures three stories of girls at different ages as they face the constriction of what it means to be seen by society as a woman as opposed to the relative freedom of being a prepubescent girl. The Apple, a pseudodocumentary about two blind sisters who have been imprisoned in their house, captures the girls’ brief encounter with the wider world when their door is unlocked. As the two girls make their hesitant way onto the streets the film plays both as an allegory for the circumscribed world of domesticity that imprisons so many Iranian women, but also as a celebration of the joy of experience and the pleasure of exploration.

A Time of Love (1991), directed and written by Makhmalbaf and shot in Turkey, tells three stories of women’s adulterous affairs, each with a different outcome. The first two are tragic and the last ends with the husband letting his wife leave. The film’s depiction of female desire and broken marriages was extremely controversial and was banned in the Islamic Republic. The Silence (1998) again uses physical affliction as a metaphor for poverty. A film suffused with striking, surreal images, it tells the story of a mother who is forced to live on the meager income brought in by Korshi, her blind, ten-year-old son, who works as a fisherman. Both mother and son are trapped, one by society and the other by physical affliction. Makhmalbaf contrasts this claustrophobic feeling by creating images based on what Korshid hears. Sounds are translated into colors, reflections—an impossible fantasy world to which he and his mother have no hope of entering.

Kandahar (2001) combines two major Makhmalbaf themes, the place of women in Islamic society and the consequences of war and devastation. The film opens with a shot of a landscape as seen through the filigreed opening of a burqa. It interweaves various stories of relief workers and travelers in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, as experienced by an Afghani-Canadian journalist in search of her missing sister. Memories of secular girlhood are contrasted with images of the ravages of war. Makhmalbaf’s Afghanistan is filled with cripples, refugees, and covered women. In one scene a group of wounded soldiers inch towards a drop site where prosthetic limbs fall from the sky.

The combination of searing reality and subjective interiority is also very much a part of Makhmalbaf’s Iran-Iraq war film, Marriage of the Blessed (1989), which recounts the shell-shocked Haji’s return to civilian life. Devastated by the war, Haji slowly disintegrates into madness, while all around him Iran attempts to return to normal. His family ignores his condition and attempts to marry him off and have him start at a job, even though he is raving mad. The film is a meditation on memories of trauma, contrasting the personal with collective memory. Makhmalbaf uses fun-house mirrors and distorts the sound to evoke Haji’s inner life. He uses still photography, hand-held camera, and special effects to more traditionally represent war and its aftermath. The film leaves the audience to ponder how conflict is most fittingly memorialized. In a short documentary, The School Blown Away by the Wind (1996), Makhmalbaf exposes the consequences of an earthquake, by filming children forced to learn their lessons in a makeshift tent, because their school is no more. In each case he is interested in how people live after great loss.

For Makhmalbaf, social and political issues are always intertwined with an attempt to find the correct cinematic means to represent them. Many of his films are reflections on the cinema itself. As Makhmalbaf became more and more and more involved in film, his interest in film history also increased. The Actor (1993) is a Chaplinesque comedy about modern times, prestige, and technology. Once Upon a Time Cinema (1992), is a densely layered documentary about the real and imagined history of Iranian cinema, combining clips of the earliest films made in the country with staged re-creations of classic films from all over the world transposed onto Iran. Salaam Cinema (1995), made to celebrate the cinema’s centennial, explores the boundaries between truth and artifice and the Iranian obsession with film. The premise of the film is an open casting call for the new Makhmalbaf feature. Hundreds of people show up, glamorous and plain, young and old, rich and poor. Makhmalbaf and his crew ask all and sundry why they want to be a part of the film. The prospective thespians’ acting ability is tested when they are asked to cry on cue. The camera captures the prospective stars’ raw desire, dissatisfaction with ordinariness, and self-deceptions. Makhmalbaf does not mock them; he reveals the human condition and the way that the cinema promises a relief from it.

Finally, Makhmalbaf has a great interest in the various ethnic groups and folkways of Iran and its neighbors. His magical-realist Gabbeh (1996), named for a traditional style of rug, is perhaps his most fully realized film on this theme. It is an Iranian cinematic version of Moby- Dick, in that in telling the story of an old couple who are tending to their treasured rug, it tells the story of how gabbehs are made, of the stories that they depict, and of the culture that surrounds them. Makhmalbaf uses the rugs’ vivid indigos, bright reds, and luminous yellows as his palate to create spectacularly beautiful images of nature that evoke not only the gabbeh, but also the tradition of Perisan poetry, which is also an important part of his esthetic. While Gabbeh celebrates local customs and folk art, Makhmalbaf includes non-Persians in many of his films for a more pointed and political purpose as well. By depicting a multiethnic society, he dispels the Iranian national myth of Persian homogeny and a single, shared past and identity. At the same time, he is making the argument that all Muslims, regardless of background, are part of a single community of brothers and sisters.

Only a handful of directors are identified with creating a style and a narrative for the revolution of which they were a part—Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov in the U.S.S.R., Tomás Gutiérrez Alea in Cuba. Makhmalbaf may be a part of two Iranian revolutions, a fitting tribute for a director whose style and intellectual curiosity have never ceased to evolve. Combining harsh reality with great beauty and flights of imagination, the range of his films is remarkable. Makhmalbaf’s work is an index of Iranian history and society and of Near Eastern ethnicity and culture. It is also a personal exploration of one man’s relationship to his art, religion, and life.

Rahul Hamid, a newly appointed Editor at Cineaste, teaches film at New York University.

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Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.