‘Growing up in Iran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf was not allowed to go to the cinema because his grandmother believed that those who did would end up in hell. Over 20 films and 120 international awards later, he has become the leading voice of didactic cinema in Iran. His latest feature film The President recently screened at the 58th BFI London Film Festival.
‘Imprisoned by the State at the age of 17, Makhmalbaf was freed, five years later, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Most of Makhmalbaf’s fellow detainees were tortured and, when released, became the very epitome of the dictatorial figureheads they had once strived to depose. Makhmalbaf sought an answer to this proliferation of the Realpolitik and hoped to share his understanding with others.
‘When he finally went to the cinema after being freed by the Revolution, the experience had a life-changing effect on him. He discovered the ‘power of cinema’ as if he were a ‘blind person’ given the ability to see and immediately understood its value as a tool to change the cyclical violence fundamentally entrenched in culture from within.
‘The idea for The President came around eight years ago when Makhmalbaf was at the Palace of Amanullah Khan in Afghanistan, standing at the edge of a hilltop that looks out over Kabul. He pondered over the concept of a dictator, commanding the city’s lights be turned on and off just to entertain his grandson.
‘While the film’s script was initially due to be set in Afghanistan, Makhmalbaf was unable to pin down a producer at the time. But three years later, the harrowing consequences of the Arab Spring compelled him to revisit the script. “I cried a lot for the Syrian people,” he says. “Look at the last three years and how many people have been killed by the exact same concept and tragedy that you will see in The President,” he adds.
‘The outcome of his train of thought was The President, a film that follows the lives of a dictator and his grandson, who are on the run after the downfall of his totalitarian regime. It seeks to “explain the tragedies of dictatorship and revolution,” as Makhmalbaf explains, creating an impact not only as a reflection of the prevailing events in the Middle East, but also as a study of human nature.
‘There have been significant consequences to the Makhmalbaf family for documenting taboo aspects of society and the perils are all too apparent in the resulting violence and fear thereof that follows Makhmalbaf and his wife and children. The family works as a sort of mini-studio under the banner ‘Makhmalbaf Film House’, as they continue to challenge the status quo. While they now live in France, the family cannot go back home to Iran and Makhmalbaf fears that no country is safe from Iran’s reach and their active pursuit to have them killed.
‘He alleges that the Iranian government has made several attempts on both his and his family’s lives. This includes detonating a bomb on his elder daughter Samira’s set while she was shooting Two Legged Horse (2007) in Afghanistan, which resulted in one person being killed and 20 others being injured. Despite these threats, he remains devoted to the cause and is even prepared to die for it. “If hundreds and thousands of people have been killed by dictatorships, why should we be silent and do nothing? It is our responsibility,” he maintains.
‘As a direct consequence of Makhmalbaf’s documentary Afghan Alphabet (2002), an Iranian law prohibiting Afghan child refugees from attending school was repealed. As a result, 500,000 Afghan children on the Afghan-Iran border were enrolled into the Iranian education system. “Afghan Alphabet proved that cinema can lead to great social upheavals and had I been born to make just this one film, it would have been worth it.”
‘Describing his style as ‘poetic realism’ and his films “between fiction and documentary, reality, poem and philosophy,” Makhmalbaf refuses to be restricted by conventions. Although he has previously made films comprising elements of fiction and documentary styles of storytelling, his most recent efforts lean towards documentary-like features, including his previous feature film controversially shot in Israel, The Gardener (2012).
‘The President, however, is set in a fictional country with an ambiguous ending and is his most fictional and also, arguably, most commercial film to date. An advocate of peace and the idea that borders and labels increase violence, Makhmalbaf has a humanistic approach towards society.
‘“We are first human beings, then we are men or women, then we are Iranian or British, and then we are Muslims or Christians. The cinema is [like] religion… it is the religion of human beings. Who put borders between us except politics, religion and economy? We should kill these borders and not human beings,” he comments.
‘He may be yet to disclose the concept for his next film (he has about 30 complete scripts to choose from), but one thing we can be sure of is that it will most certainly have something to say about the world and perhaps, even change it. Lauded for his eclectic, innovative style of filmmaking, he continues to push the envelope both in terms of his work’s aesthetics and socio-political relevance. Makhmalbaf really is as he describes himself: “A man standing on planet Earth, with [his] hand [touching] the sky.”’ — Aleyha Ahmed
Makhmalbaf Family Official Website
Mohsen Makhmalbaf @ IMDb
‘On Mohsen Makhmalbaf’, by Jonathan Rosenbaum
‘There’s a little Shah in all of us’
MM interviewed @ BOMB
‘Limbs of No Body: The World’s Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy’
‘Mohsen Makhmalbaf: Tehran tried to kill me’
The Mohsen Makhmalbaf Movie Script Page!
‘Open Letter to Filmmaker Mohsin Makhmalbaf’
‘Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Visit to Israel Angers Critics Back Home’
Podcast: ‘LISTEN TO DIRECTOR MOHSEN MAKHMALBAF DISCUSS THE PRESIDENT’
‘Salaam Cinema: On Mohsen Makhmalbaf’
‘Limbs of no body: World’s indifference to the Afghan tragedy’, by Mohsin Makhmalbaf
‘Makhmalbaf: Secrets of Khamenei’s life’
‘Films have to have magic’
‘Censorship kills cinema, says filmmaker Makhmalbaf’
Mohsen Makhmalbaf Interview
Mohsen Makhmalbaf receives the Robert Bresson Award at Venice Film Festival 2015
Mohsen Makhmalbaf interview with BBC Persian
Mohsen Makhmalbaf masterclass – 2015
Q. Your daughter Hana, who is also a filmmaker (she made the 2007 movie Buddha Collapsed out of Shame), has said: “My ideas are in my film. The interpretations are for others to make.” Do you subscribe to this?
A. When I shot Gabbeh, which was about tribes who weave carpets, I made cinema like a poet reciting about nature. But when they kill people in front of you, you cannot limit yourself to doing poetry. I would prefer to rescue a person about to be drowned with my best image before letting them die. There are two types of filmmakers: those who want to show the world their cinema and those who want to change the world with their cinema.
Q. To make that cinema you had to leave Iran six years ago.
A. I’ve lived in France, Afghanistan, India and, now, in Tajikistan. The important thing isn’t the place. What you constantly have to ask yourself is where you are most useful. If I had exiled myself in Europe or in the United States, the same governments would have thrown me out because of the diplomatic relations they maintain with Iran.
Q. Cannes has paid tribute to jailed Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. Do you know their situation?
A. I have experienced their conditions so harshly that I had to leave my country. Cinema is divided in Iran. On the one hand, the directors who live there cannot shoot films because they would end up in jail. On the other, the exiled ones are those the government threatens with death. [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is terrified of this second group because he knows its international media impact.
Q. How do you work under this threat?
A. Three years ago, in the middle of a shoot in Afghanistan, a bomb exploded and killed several members of my crew. On my last visit to France, the police alerted me that I had to leave the country because of a bomb threat. The Iranian government has suffered at the hands of the artists and it wants revenge. My daughter Hana was going to present her film Green Days at a Lebanon festival that coincided with a visit by Ahmadinejad. Her film wasn’t screened on the order of both countries. The paradox that Hana expressed in interviews after the banning of film was the false bravery of Ahmadinejad. He’s afraid of the film, but he feels proud about traveling to other countries to denounce Israel.
Q. How does a cinema family live together?
A. I have a very involved relationship with my three children and my wife. I am a father, husband, and, at one time, film teacher to Hana and Samira [his eldest daughter and the director of films such as The Apple (1998), Blackboards (2000) and At Five in the Afternoon (2003)]. Now I have also become their companion in work and in exile. We all fight together to get through day by day.
Q. Are you continuing with your film school, the Makhmalbaf Film House?
A. No. Since I left Iran I haven’t yet gone back to giving classes. I only sporadically give the odd film workshop in some countries. What I do do is maintain email contact with a few young directors from Iran and other places such as Tajikistan.
Q. What is the current outlook for Iranian cinema?
A. It has provoked a change in society because, via media coverage made in neighboring countries, it has helped raise awareness about Iran’s problems. Maybe our films do not provoke the same reception as Hollywood films the first time, but in the long run they find a loyal public.
Q. Out of the films of yours, if you had to select one you want people to see the most, which would it be and why?
A. If you are a young filmmaker, I can suggest that you watch Salaam Cinema (1995), or A Moment of Innocence (1996). If you are a sociologist, I suggest you watch The President (2015). If you are a reader of novels and poems, I suggest Gabbeh (1996). It depends on who you are, and in which mood you are.
Q. If you were making The Cyclist today, would you have changed anything about it?
A. I can’t change my past, because if I change my past, it would be something else. It is not the correction of something; it is recreating something. For example, in that moment for The Cyclist I remember my childhood story: I saw a man who was riding a bicycle from Pakistan. I remember that story, and I added different layers on that to tell the story of Afghan society.
It was difficult, because how could you have close-up of a man who’s riding a bicycle? So I had the challenge of technique. I tried to show society through one story as well; I wanted to make a film for the public. In Iran we had three million Afghan refugees, [and] Iranian people’s attitudes were so aggressive with them. That’s why I made this film: To bring people to the
cinema, to make them more kind towards those refugee people.
Q. So you wouldn’t change anything; it’s just a matter of the story itself.
A. You know I have rules for myself. I say, films should be entertaining, to bring audiences to the cinema. I don’t like boring films. They are a waste of time. But films should have a message, and they have to have magic. When I say entertainment, I don’t mean the Hollywood and Bollywood style. I mean an attractive film. So I made The Cyclist like this. But if you look for example to A Moment of Innocence, it’s another style. The concept is different.
Q. Speaking of the messages in your films, in The Gardener you talk about how technology these days can be destructive. Do you still feel the same way?
A. You know I don’t reject technology. I put questions on quantity, and the way that we use it. For example, we have a lot of cars. But we don’t have places to go. 40 years ago we hadn’t this amount of cars, we had more places to go. Even in one country you had different styles of cities. Nowadays, I have visited maybe 60 to 70 countries – all of them are the same! There is no diversity. We are made poor by this technology.
Before, doors were paintings as well. Art and industry were together. We also had enough jobs for everyone. Now we have created machines, and we cannot compete with our machines. I reject this style of using technology. I’m not a flat-minded person to say we don’t need any. But we need tools in control of human beings, not tools that can control human beings.
14 of Mohsin Makhmalbaf’s 28 films
The President (2014)
‘In an imaginary country in the Caucasus, a President is on the run with his five-year-old grandson following a coup d’état. The two travel across the lands that the President once governed. Now, disguised as a street musician to avoid being recognized, the former dictator comes into contact with his people, and gets to know them from a different point of view. The President and his family rule their land with an iron fist, enjoying lives of luxury and leisure at the expense of their population’s misery. When a coup d’état overthrows his brutal rule and the rest of his family flees the country by plane, The President is suddenly left to care for his young grandson and forced to escape. Now the country’s most wanted fugitive with a bounty on his head, The President begins a perilous journey with the boy, criss-crossing the country to reach the sea where a ship waits to bring them to safety. Posing as street musicians and traveling together with the people who suffered for years under the dictatorship, the fallen President and the innocent child will be exposed first hand to the hardships that inspired unanimous hatred for the regime.’ — collaged
Ongoing Smile (2013)
‘At the age of 74, many people retire or go and spend the rest of their life in a retirement home. But Kim Dong-Ho has made the decision to live like a young and energetic man until the end of his life. He gets up early around 4 am every morning and does his exercise for an hour. Then he checks the news and replies to emails. After that, he takes the bus to work. He currently works at a university for film and media, which he founded two years ago. Kim is the man who established the largest Asian Film Festival when he was almost 60 years old. Now that he is 74, he has decided to make his first film. Every month, during his lunch and dinner he holds 60 different meetings. Most of these meetings are held to something new, while some of them are catching up with his old friends. Kim still keeps in touch with his friends, since he did his military service fifty-five years ago. He tries to gather them once a month.’ — Festival of Tolerance
The Gardener (2012)
‘It’s a common trait of modern Iranian cinema to blur the line between fiction and documentary. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (which features Mohsen) might be the most famous example in the west, but plenty of Iranian movies play this game, notably Mohsen’s A Moment of Innocence, his daughter Samira’s The Apple, and Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror and This Is Not a Film. The Gardener may be less explicit in its interrogation of cinematic reality, but it still raises worthwhile questions about the relationship between camera and subject—namely, is the camera ever separable from the cameraman’s bias? Mohsen and Maysam both record footage on their own digital cameras, and a third, unseen videographer records them. Is it possible to detect differences in perspective, even when all three cameras are shooting the same thing?’ — Ben Sachs
the entire film
Scream Of The Ants (2006)
‘Scream of the Ants, whose title refers to the unheard protests of people in a godless world, lapses inexcusably into talking-head aesthetics, with various characters spouting different strains of Makhmalbaf’s own frustrated and contradictory world-critiques… but then, just as the picture precipitously lost its footing after the first act, it recovers its visual potency, at the very least, in an extended finale along the shores of the Ganges: filled with bathers, bobbing with corpses, strewn with blossoms, lapping against the concrete banks where even the wealthiest of the deceased are burned by their families for want of a proper gravesite. Again, the strange and bitter world yields itself up to Makhmalbaf’s camera without his necessarily intervening or shaping our impressions at the level of his most rigorous artistry. And yet, these moments of mysterious and discomfiting realism make Scream of the Ants an urgent record of a denied world (and not an emblem of that very denial, like The Darjeeling Limited is, for all its cosmetic wonders). In its visual austerity, its withering speeches, its unusual tolerance for nudity and verbal vulgarity, and even in its aesthetic self-sabotage, Scream of the Ants maps a Godardian arc from artistic wit and sophistication into dogmatic ideology and ascetic self-loathing, directed if not against the director himself than at least against his medium and against his world. Whether this breakdown is ameliorated or extended by the riverside coda is up to each viewer to decide, just as the question remains open as to whether Makhmalbaf has really made a movie here or else just crudely illustrated an Op/Ed that’s been thundering inside his head.’ — Nick’s Flicks Picks
Sex & Philosophy (2005)
‘In the midst of a mid-life crisis Jan, a 40 year old dancing teacher, decides to instigate a revolution against himself. His first act is to summon each of his four lovers, who are unaware of each other, to join him at the dance studio where we assume he is a tutor. His revelations to the women prompt a discourse about love and the fleeting nature of happiness. But when he comes to the fourth and final woman, he finds that his own philosophy of love is not as easy to apply as he had presumed. He realizes that the more the contemporary world has become sexually oriented the farther it has moved away from love.’ — LBDVD
The Afghan Alphabet (2002)
‘In the border villages between Iran and Afghanistan, director Mohsen Makhmalbaf films the children who do not attend school and questions why they are not being educated. He encounters a group of girls studying in UNICEF classes: one of them refuses to cast off her burqa despite the fact that she has escaped Afghanistan and the threat of the Taliban. She is more afraid of the horrifying god they have created than of the Taliban themselves.’ — bfi
the entire film
‘With humanitarian rather than political aims, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001) was intended to focus on the plight of women in Afghanistan under a brutal oppressive regime and on the pervasive misery caused by civil strife and war between the Soviets and the US-backed Mujehadeen. Beyond its acute relevance to contemporary viewers, aesthetically Kandahar transcends the plight of individuals, and, like Gabbeh, Makhmalbaf’s magical tale of carpet weavers, works poetically: it achieves a wrenching emotional impact mostly by surreal images that evoke the permanent results of violence, such as mutilation, rather than through violence itself. One unforgettable image consists of parachutes dangling artificial limbs high above a group of men on crutches down below, running in a three-legged race to retrieve them.’ — Liza Bear, BOMB
The Silence (1998)
‘The Silence (Sokhout), a startlingly fresh and elegant work, is about a ten-year-old boy, Khorshid, who is blind. Khorshid’s father, in Russia, has abandoned him and his mother, who in order to sustain their existence fishes in the river on which the rural dwelling that includes their threadbare apartment is situated. This woman has no other choice but to rely on Khorshid’s meager income for rent. It is not enough, however, and in a few days’ time they will be evicted by the landlord, a greedy, powerful presence whom we never see except for, once, as a hand knocking at the door. A strange, elliptical film of haunting, limpid visual beauty, The Silence ends with two events: the eviction, as the mother, who is calling for her son, and her one great possession, a wall mirror, symbolic for art and inspiration, that is, humanity’s spirit, are rowed across the river, the mirror’s reflection in the water symbolically linking human spirituality and Nature; and the boy, as usual off on his own, passing forever into a life of the imagination in which he is able to orchestrate sounds in his environment—to which his blindness has made him acutely sensitive and receptive—into a finished piece, one in fact familiar to us as the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Only a fool could miss the social and political implications of such a film, and the government, not at all fooled in this regard, responded brusquely. The Silence was banned in Iran.’ — Dennis Grunes
the entire film
‘Astonishingly beautiful and profoundly poetic, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh is quite possibly the most eye-poppingly gorgeous film ever made. This sumptuous allegorical tale focuses on an almost extinct nomadic tribe of South Eastern Iran who are famed for their intricately designed Persian “Gabbeh” carpets. As the film opens, an elderly couple are bringing their rug (their gabbeh) to a small creek lagoon to wash it. Gabbehs are thick hand-woven wool rugs that contain geometric colour fields and images from nature or history. Suddenly, a young woman depicted on the carpet miraculously comes to life and relates a story of forbidden love. A richly textured weaving of costumes, landscapes, rituals, beliefs, ethnography and traditional storytelling that casts a seductive spell.’ — Watershed
Salaam Cinema (1995)
‘In this direct exercise in meta-fiction that reconfigures documentary and fiction, Mohsen Makhmalbaf advertises a casting call for his new film about the centenary of cinema. He prepared 1,000 application forms but 5,000 people turned up, resulting in a riot. What follows is a series of casting interviews with a few dozen willing actors, which Makhmalbaf decides will be the film itself. With the systematic nature of the administration of the casting call, and the dominant and oppressive guise that Makhmalbaf takes on, the interviews play out much like an interrogation, a vigorous analysis of Iranian society and its desires through the voices of its people. As the power-relations between director and actors spin like a pendulum through their pointed conversations, and the act of truth and lying becomes more uncertain, a certain authenticity and intensity of cinema emerges evidently before our eyes.’ — SIFF
the entire film
The Actor (1993)
‘The Actor is a 1993 Iranian film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The film features Akbar Abdi as Akbar, Fatemeh Motamed-Aria as his wife, Simin, and Mahaya Petrosian as the gypsy girl. The film is a combination of fiction and reality since the leading character has the same name and occupation as the actor who portrays the role, while the details and events are fictional.’ — Wiki
The Nights of Zayandeh-rood (1991)
‘A few years before the revolution: A man, whom is a university professor in Sociology, has an accident while crossing the street with his wife. The passerby’s pass near them inattentively and therefore the man’s wife dies. When the professor recovers and returns home he throws all the papers related to his research on Sociology out of the window over the people’s heads because of the anger he has towards the inattention of people and promises himself not to work for them anymore… During the revolution: A few years later, when the revolution in Iran is at its height, the professor witnesses the crowds’ uprise from the same window. Some people are wounded and the others get killed to save the wounded. The people are no longer inattention… A few years after the revolution: The professor is sitting at home. He hears an accident sound and looks out from the window. A young biker whom has had an accident with a vehicle is dying and people are passing him inattention…’ — MUBI
The Peddler (1989)
‘The Peddler (1987), a film that brought Makhmalbaf international attention, was the first turning point in a career full of twists and turns. In this moving three-episode film about a society caught in a web of moral and social decline, as well as in several subsequent films, Mahkmalbaf began to seriously question the values he had dearly espoused in his earlier films.’ — Iran Chamber Society
‘Boycott is a 1985 Iranian film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, set in pre-revolutionary Iran. The film tells the story of a young man named Valeh (Majid Majidi) who is sentenced to death for his communist tendencies. It is widely believed that the film is based on Makhmalbaf’s own experiences. Ardalan Shoja Kaveh starred in the film.’ — collaged
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Whoa, I haven’t seen the DVD yet. I’m glad to hear it seems okay. Hopefully mine is in the mail. Thank you, David! Yes, the Bill “vs.” Cecil Taylor story is legendary, in my head at least. ** Nick Toti, Hi, Nick! Yeah, that’s so cool and exciting about the Bene DVD. So cool of you to do that. Can’t wait. It sounds beautiful. It also sounds like making DVD is almost as draggy as making an actual film. Glad you dug the Merzbow array. Thanks a lot, man. Take it easy. ** Armando, Hi. Glad you dug the post. Agree about ‘Nocturama’, it’s terrific. Honestly, I love every single book of Blanchot’s. He’s my big dude. I’m one of those rare people who only like the early DeLillo, up through ‘White Noise’, but after that I’m not so into his novels. although I haven’t thoroughly read the recent ones. Ah, gotcha. I jumped the gun on Pasadena. George Miles lived in San Marino, which is a small city on part of the southern border of Pasadena. Yes, ‘The Well-Dressed Wound’ is a short novel, and it’s genius like everything Derek has written. And, so, as you saw, PGL will be out on DVD/BluRay very soon, and you’ll get to see what you think. ** _Black_Acrylic, I’ve listened to the Merzcast, but not in a while. Sounds like a plan. Enjoy Leeds. Yes, wow, PGL and Zac and I will be in Glasgow so soon. Time’s a flier. So sorry about Leeds’ sad state of futbol affairing. But faith is awesome. ** Steve Erickson, Ha. That’d do it. When I still lived at home in my late teens, the go-to guaranteed way to brutalise my mother and siblings was to crank ‘Trout Mask Replica’ full blast. And it’s obviously a credit to that album that the same technique would work just as effectively to this very day. Nice stuff at Tribeca. Do tell about the Herzog/Singer doc in particular. ** Right. Today’s post restoration is another one that was triggered by a heartfelt request for its rebirth from a reader of this blog. Happy to do it. Hope you’re happy to explore it. See you tomorrow.