Stone walls do not a prison make, nor Iran bars a cell. Freedom is where you find it and today many find it, or proclaim it, through film-making.
At Cannes last month the writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof became this year’s curfew-breaker from the land of the Ayatollahs. A breakout ritual almost cyclical has established itself at the world’s premier film festival. Ever since Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami (releasing in the UK this week his new made-in-exile movie Like Someone In Love) won the Palme d’Or after smuggling to Cannes the banned-by-Tehran Taste of Cherries (1997), this game of Persian cat and mouse – of Patriarchal Council versus dissident director – has been a feature of the festival season.
Rasoulof’s act of courage will take some beating (let’s hope not literally). He defied his rulers by bringing to Cannes Manuscripts Don’t Burn, a powerful truth-based drama of state despotism, promptly rewarded with the International Critics Prize. The film was shown on the last day of a festival where, two years ago, Rasoulof screened Goodbye, one of a diptych of contraband movies with Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film. At that time both film-makers had suffered arrest, detention and work bans. Rasoulof’s arrest came in 2010. According to some web sources today, it was because he had supported or campaigned for the opposition politician Mir-Hossein Moussavi.
“No,” denies Rasoulof, a dark-glassed, stockily built 40-year-old sitting by a Cannes pool with two colleagues I recognise, a little spookily, as actors from his movie. (One played a state interrogator. The other, who translates for us, played a writer executed, in a grisly scene, by slow suffocation.) “I’m not a supporter of any political faction. I was arrested at the location of a movie I was making. I had already been unofficially warned not to work.”
Punishment included a month in solitary confinement. During interrogation and detention Rasoulof met some of the men who inspired his film. Manuscripts is based on events during and after the notorious crackdown, sometimes called the Chain Murders (1988-98), when artists were victims of murder, arrest, disappearance. One incident, used in the film, was the attempted fatal crashing of a bus carrying conference-bound writers.
Were these acts state-initiated? “The regime claimed ‘It’s not us,’” Rasoulof says. “They blamed Israel. They said the enemy has done this to smear our government. My movie asks, who was behind it? Some of the people I portray I actually knew, like the intellectual who was broken in jail and became a security guy for the state and also editor of the largest circulating newspaper.”
Rasoulof, who has been fiddling disconcertingly with his mobile phone, suddenly raises it to show me a picture of this man: a spitting image of the actor to my left who played him in the film. A little later he does the same with the bloody picture of a slain child whose death by stabbing, after witnessing his writer father’s murder, inspired a gruesome scene in the movie. I am grateful he does not show me a picture of another truth-based victim in the drama: a wheelchair-bound intellectual killed by a poisonous suppository. (“Potassium,” Rasoulof says. “Officially they said his death was suicide.”)
The plot of Manuscripts is a chilling daisy chain of killings, one victim of fear or interrogation betraying another until a death toll worthy of Hamlet – though more clinical and scarily impassive in the relating – brings the curtain down on the drama.
There is surely room for hope now, though, in Iran? A new president elected? One approved by reformists? Rasoulof talks to me a week or two before Hassan Rohani’s poll success but the pessimism of his words covers even that eventuality. “It isn’t the man in Iran. It is the system. It’s not individuals. One of our main problems, as I discuss in the film, is our education system. We have to reform and renew what young people learn.” (The word “system” rackets around in the air like an errant firecracker. It is the same word, or pronounced the same way, in both English and Farsi.) But young people, we’re told, want change. Didn’t they rally together to protest against the last, rigged election?
“Of course. But you have to bear in mind the situation in Iran is complex. We can’t make the conclusion that because everyone in Iran wants radical change there will be that change. Over 30 years or more Iran has gone through a series of deep-impacting experiences – the revolution, the war with Iraq – whose result has been densely complex.”
So the problems go back to the Islamic revolution?
“Older than that. We had many problems during the Pahlavi era, under the Shah. But after the revolution the oppressive system became so huge, so visible. Iran is so rich, sitting on huge reserves of gas and oil, that I’ve always considered the country as a very beautiful woman whose beauty has become a major problem for her.”
It’s a diverting conceit but seems a little beside the point. No one is yet jumping into Iran to seize “her” assets. “Her” problems are surely self-made and self-inflicted. Rasoulof argues, more convincingly, that the crackdown on artists, and the fissures it is creating in Iranian society, are ultimately a form of cultural and political self-destruction for the country.
“When the judge in charge of my case sentenced me for acting against national security I laughed at him and said, ‘You are jeopardising national security by condemning artists.’ ” How long will artists put up, Rasoulof asks, with the living death of not being able to create art? (Or citizens with that of not having the freedom to enjoy it.) Of the “free” but forbidden-to-work Panahi, Rasoulof says, “He lives in his house. He can travel within Iran. But when an artist cannot work, is being alive just the liberty to be permitted to breathe?”
Rasoulof, helped by a fellowship, secured the freedom to travel to Hamburg, Germany. He and his wife and daughter live there now. “My next film will be made in Germany. At present I don’t know what to say about whether I will return to Iran. I am waiting for the reaction to this movie [Manuscripts Won’t Burn]. But I am not going to adapt my way of work to what that reaction may or may not be. There are a number of things I want to do, as a film-maker, and I am going to do them.”