in conversation with Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Is cinema saturated with the wrong intentions? Iranian filmmaker, writer and human right activist Mohsen Makhmalbaf talked to four by three about the purpose of cinema, how it relates to art, politics and philosophy, while recounting his collaboration with Abbas Kiarostami on Close-Up and the continuous censorship he is subject to.
You started story writing while you were a political prisoner and turned to filmmaking following your release. What was it about cinema that fascinated you?
Mohsen Makhmalbaf: In my childhood, influenced by my mother, I didn’t go to the cinema, because my grandmother was very religious and insisted that if we went to the cinema, God would send us to hell. That’s basically why I never went to cinema when I was young. But after I was released from political prison, I suddenly had the chance to see films, which affected me a lot, like a blind person whose veil is lifted and who can see colour and the miracle thereof for the first time. Before I went to prison I had seen two films, but after the revolution when I was 22 years old and discovered cinema properly and realised that this was the most effective medium to tell my story and to talk to society. At the same time though I was also writing novels, short stories and articles. But I became little by little more and more involved with cinema. Literature is only one form of art, but cinema is a combination of a variety of different arts, such as music, theater, acting, cinematography, photography, set design and sound design.
70 feature films were produced in Iran before the revolution, but when Hollywood arrived after the revolution, Iranian cinema immediately died. During the revolution Iranian people even attacked cinemas. Except for a few art films, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s films or some French New Wave and Italian Neo-realism films, we didn’t have cinema. I thought that we also needed Iranian cinema that irrespective of the style would also be a medium through which you could deal with social issues and talk to society not one-by-one, as through literature, but on a large scale. So I decided to become a filmmaker.
Some of your films feature autobiographical elements, such as in A Moment of Innocence or Boycott, which could be seen as a conversation you are having with your younger self. Even though these films couldn’t be reduced to an autobiographical reading, I was wondering how you see your own life in relation to the films you make.
MM: I made around 30 films in different styles, with different subject matters and in ten different countries. You are right, in a few of my films, I took a part of my life and used it as a starting point for my art. One of them was A Moment of Innocence, which was semi-biographical and which I used to communicate my advice to society. But I also criticised my younger self in a symbolic way, so as to criticise our revolution, as it was nearly impossible to criticise the revolution directly. I tried to go beyond my individual story, so as to point to a larger structural problem, such as the inherent violence of the revolution and present a non-violent version of it.
Plus, cinema is a large part of my life, not at least because all of my family are making films as well. Cinema is a part of our life every day. When every member of your family is working in cinema, you can’t have a life outside of it. My self is actually divided into three elements: politics, cinema and literature. All of these elements simultaneously come together in my mind.
You have dedicated the trilogy consisting of Once Upon a Time, Cinema, The Actor & Hello Cinema to cinema and society. What motivated the trilogy and each film?
MM: In my Cinema Trilogy, Hello Cinema focuses on the audience. Even though the first layer is cinema, the second layer is political. When I made this film, Iranian television was full of lies, as the representation of Iranian people just wasn’t real. So Hello Cinema is like surgery. I use the knife of cinema and apply it to society, in order to show themselves to themselves. I wanted to show them who they are, so that they wouldn’t have to believe that the television version of them. During this time, Iranian people were portrayed as always praying to God and as being violent. However, in actuality they were singing, dancing, drinking in their homes and dreaming to be free.
If you look at the two young girls in Hello Cinema, they are just so strong. They are a great example of Iranian women under pressure. They are strong in their right to talk freely. However, in Iranian cinema it is was forbidden to show the real life of people on television or in cinema and newspapers. So Hello Cinema is about the love to cinema in Iran and also the social life of real Iranian people.
In The Actor I am talking about the artist and his condition. We have an actor who wants to act in an artistic film, but his social condition forces him to act in a bad film that he doesn’t like. I am also talking in A Moment of Innocence about the dialectic about art and politics, as well as about the role of the director.
What is the function or role of cinema to you more broadly speaking?
MM: I believe that cinema has the ability to change society, especially in a country like Iran. The internet arguably killed cinema, as there isn’t enough of an audience left, whereas in Iran you still have a lot of people who go to the cinema every day. One of the reasons is that cinema was forbidden in Iran and people are attracted to anything that is forbidden. Another reason is the love of Iranian people for the arts. We aren’t as science and technology oriented as the Western countries are, as we are more related to poets and philosophers.
I also believe that when you look into the mirror in the morning, you want to see whether everything is fine before you leave the house. Cinema is like a mirror that allows and encourages us to watch ourselves and our story through the individuals in the film. Hence, cinema is a great medium to show people to themselves, to correct something in their faces and appearance. If you make a film about violence, someone might discover his own traits in the film and corrects his behaviour subsequently. So I use an honest form of cinema as a mirror, not only to show reality, but to change bring about change in the individual and society at large.
In relation to this, what is the role of the director or artist to you? Do you feel s/he has to take responsibility?
MM: Absolutely! I don’t like or understand art for the sake of art only. What is the meaning of that? We are still living in times of war. Millions of people live under pressure and have to seek refuge every year. Everyday people not only lose their jobs, but also their hope. Given this situation how can we say that this isn’t our concern and we should just make film for art's sake or to gain money or fame? Cinema is a tool. Cinema is like a gun. Whereas a gun can only shoot one bullet at a time at one individual, cinema can shoot 24 frames a second at ignorance, so as to bring knowledge to the individual and society. For me cinema is a love of art, a creation and responsibility for society and every human being.
For example look at the war in Syria: in the past four to five years half a million Syrians were killed and half of the people became refugees. There is no security in and around that area. How many films have been made about that? How many films have attempted to find a solution? This isn’t just a problem of politicians, it is our problem as well. Cinema is an important tool to show something more real and more honest, in order to change our conditions.
We have a lot of television channels, which, as the word implies, they channel something by choosing something for a while and then they forget about it. For example, they concentrate on Afghanistan for a few months and then they decided it’s not fashionable enough anymore and they focused on another country or issue, which was more fashionable at the time. But Afghanistan has still a lot of problems. Cinema can show you something that is hiding or something that has become forgotten. In 1999, when I made Kandahar, no one was talking about Afghanistan. The world had forgotten about Afghanistan. I have seen 20.000 people die there in one week while we were there in secret to find out about the situation. I was so shocked, but it wasn’t even in the news. People were dying because of hunger. But television and other news channels were concentrating on something like Michael Jackson or something else that is very simple. Cinema has the potential to show something absent or something we have forgotten. News don’t have a human perspective, as they filter it through a national perspective. But when you go there and look deeply, meaning and reality turn out to be something else. We need to use cinema as a tool for something better than cinema. Humans won’t die for cinema, but I think cinema can die for human beings. I can see younger generations searching for fame, but this isn’t what cinema is for.
You are also a human rights activist and have been awarded several awards. Your documentary Afghan Alphabet (2002), for example, even changed the law and had a real social impact on the life of thousands of Afghan children refugees in Iran. What do you feel is the relationship between politics and cinema? Is there a distinction to you between the artistic and the political realm?
MM: I make different films. For example, Gabbeh or Silence are more in the artistic tradition and it’s true that those films also have a political layer to it. But I have also made films, which are more philosophical than they are political, such as Sex & Philosophy, which is more dealing with human relationships in general and sexual ones in particular. I was interested to explore how humans use each other like objects for sexual needs or desires, while only ending up in loneliness.
If you look at all the films I have made, you will see a connection between cinema and philosophy, cinema and art, cinema and society, cinema and politics. When the political situation is urgent and bad, my films automatically become more political. But when the political situation is a bit more relaxed, I am thinking about human beings and their existence.
Do you feel that there is a natural connection between philosophy and cinema?
MM: What is cinema? Cinema is something that has been created by human beings and human beings can see themselves in this creation. Everything related to human beings and cinema means life. This is the reason why we have different forms of cinema. But in each film you will see a part of the human soul.
Philosophy isn’t exclusive to academics and their students in universities. It is a part of our lives - of each one of us. It relates to the way we look at our lives, the way we question our lives, the way we relate to the world and the way we ask ‘why’, while each ‘why’ relates back to philosophy.
Film has a lot of concern for beauty, such as through framing, sound design, set design, etc. The meaning of art generally speaking also refers back to philosophy. I don’t believe that there is a distance between the political and the artist realm. Even films that are not attempting to say anything political at all are still in some sense political, sometimes because of the absence of their politics or their wish to hide their politics.
Earlier this year cinema and society has lost the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Not only do you share certain cinematic similarities with him, but you were also part of Kiarostami’s film Close-Up, the story of the real-life trial of a man who impersonated you. How did this collaboration come about?
MM: Actually Kiarostami’s death came as a real shock for many people in Iran and around the world, because it happened so suddenly. Even though he was old, he was still young and was always talking about life. He was still such a young person and then suddenly disappeared from this planet.
Kiarostami, Amir Naderi and myself were the three people who started the New Wave in Iranian cinema. Kiarostami through films such as Where is the Friend’s House? and me through my films, such as The Peddler and The Cyclist. We started the Iranian New Wave through those three films. We wanted to be poetic and honest and try to show reality as it is. We certainly had similarities as we tried to create a specific wave in Iran. But also each one of us has his own unique characteristics, which differ from the others.
Kiarostami was an artist in a poetic way, who focused less on political or social aspects. In this respect, he was a little conservative, as he refrained from interfering in politics. However, I, on the other side, was coming from a political background and I had problems with the current political situation and wanted to change something in the political and social sphere. Even though we differed, we were united in our focus on realism and a poetic approach to cinema.
About Close-Up, I was actually famous in Iran, but no one knew what I looked like, as I didn’t have my photo published, which allowed me to more freely observe society. But then I got to know about this man, who pretended to be me. Hossain Sabzian looked a bit like me, not too much, but a little or enough so that he could not necessarily cheat people, but to reach to his dreams. Sabzian wasn’t actually educated, but a simple worker and a real lover of cinema. One day, someone called me up to explain that Sabzian pretended to be me. I tried to stop the newspapers from publishing this story, so as to save his face. On the same day, I had a meeting with Kiarostami and told him about this story. He immediately made the decision to make a film about it. He asked me whether I wanted to make a film about it and as I wasn’t interested in this, as I only felt bad for this man, Kiarostami asked me whether I would help him to make this film. We immediately started working, went to prison to find this man and everything after that is in the film. So everything you see happened like this in reality. Expect the parts that Kiarostami recreated, because Sabzian was still in prison. So Kiarostami short at first the prison and court scenes and once Sabzian was released, he recreated the part that happened prior to his serving his sentence.
I like Close-Up a lot, because it is kind of Bicycle Thief all over again. This film shows one guy doing something wrong, but then you discover the reason behind this ‘wrong’ activity, so as to understand the condition. Sure, he stole a bicycle, but then we go deep and understand that this man isn't bad, but that the condition of his country is bad.
You have left Iran in 2005 and several of your films are still banned there. Only earlier this year The Nights of Zayandeh-rood (1990), which was banned by the Iranian government, was rescued from Iran and went on to screen as the opening film of Venice Classics 2016. What is your relationship to your homeland? And what does it mean for you and your artistic practice to live in exile?
MM: The Nights of Zayandeh-rood is a film I made more than 26 years ago. In Iran films go first to film festivals before they are shown anywhere else. In the process the authorities actually cut 25 minutes from the original running time of 100 minutes, in order for it to be shown at the festival. I didn’t want that this version, which was one-third of the original and cut into pieces, to be shown at the festival, but they showed it anyways. While the film was showing we had people queuing up for days and nights for kilometers, in order to watch this film. The government and newspapers attacked the film again and the censorship committee cut it further. At this point one third of the film had disappeared, including the negative, and then they banned the film entirely, so that it wasn’t released in Iran or internationally.
Through the help of a friend we were able to steal this film from the censorship body archive this year. We sent the film after 26 years to several film festivals, including Venice. The film was also supposed to be screened at the Beirut film festival. However, the director at the Beirut film festival called us to inform us that the Iranian embassy called them to tell them to not show the film. The Iranian government then put pressure on the Lebanese government and finally the film was again censored in Lebanon. After 26 years Iran is still concerned to censor this film! The Lebanese press was filled with this story. The Iranian government is still scared of this film. But what are they afraid of? Of 500 people watching an old film at a festival? Well, this is the Iranian style. After we were fighting with them for a week and other film festivals supported us, such as the director of Venice, the Beirut film festival decided to screen the film.
Even after 26 years, the Iranian government is trying to stop my work from being shown. Not only are they trying to stop my work, but they even went as far as trying to kill me. Once when we were in Northern Afghanistan they exploded a hand grenade on our shooting location. More than 20 people were injured, one of whom died after two months in hospital. Once they tried to poison me when I stayed in a guesthouse in Afghanistan. Also five years ago when I was in France and two police men came to our home and gave me a bodyguard to protect me, as they had received messages that the iranian government was planning to kill me. This isn’t just censorship. The police informed me that I wasn’t able to travel to a lot of countries, not just Iran, but also all neighboring countries. I am also not allowed to fly over Iran, as they would bring the airplane down to arrest me. This is the way of Iranian censorship. Some directors choose or try to not be in conflict with the Iranian government by refraining from getting involved in national politics. However, some directors in Iran don’t accept this, as every single day a minimum of three people are executed in prisons. How can we be silent in the face of this horrific situation? For the past six years they have arrested 15,000 people, raped and tortured them in prison. Just how could I be silent?
However, I am not only making films for my own country. As I made films in ten different countries and my films have been released in many more countries, I am not thinking about an Iranian audience, but human beings irrespective of any nationality. This planet is like a small boat in the ocean of the universe. If something bad happens in one part, the whole boat will suffer and sink. Think about Syria: who defended Assad, except many Iranian leaders? If Iran wasn’t behind Assad, five years ago this revolution would have been successful. Iran is in fact participating in killing Syrian people. My homeland and your homeland are this planet and we should all share into our responsibility for it. Take global warming: it will destroy the whole planet and not just one part of it. And one government affects the next, as it is all one intricate web. There isn’t such a thing as one country or one cinema in isolation. Nor do human beings exist in isolation, but always in relationship to others.
We were born on this planet and not in one country. The main goal is to be happy, healthy and a friend. If we aren’t happy we will commit suicide. If we aren’t healthy we will die. If we aren’t friends we will kill each other. Without those three elements we will lose our humanity. If these three things are granted, why would we think about nations, religions, race and gender?
Cinema is a new human language. Cinema has enabled us to talk through images in a powerful way, which wasn’t possible a couple of hundred years ago. Cinema is like one country. Without cinema our thoughts would be different. Cinema can teach us a lot about what it means to be human on this planet and about every corner of the world.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf is an Iranian filmmaker, writer, producer and human right activist. Makhmalbaf has written 27 literary and story books and directed 20 feature films, 4 documentaries and 5 short films in ten countries, won some 50 awards and has been a juror in more than 15 major film festivals. He left Iran in 2005 shortly after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.