Film Revolutionary: Films By and About Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Paradise and Purgatory

In 1999, perhaps the event most talked about in the film world was the release of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue on video and DVD. Since it first aired in Poland in 1988, this series of ten hour-long episodes became something of a cult hit in the U.S. Everyone talked about how wonderful the series was, but practically no one had actually been able to see it. Due to difficulties with distribution rights, screenings of The Decalogue would pop up every few years, mostly at film festivals or smaller theaters devoted to art film and most of the time to sold-out crowds. However, until Facets Video released the series in 1999, the majority of American filmgoers had to make due with published screenplays and enthusiastic reviews.

Less attention is being paid to Facets’ new release of seven features and two short films by and about Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. To my mind, however, this release is just as important to the film scene in the U.S. Over the last several years, Iranian film has begun to make its way to our shores (a trend that started when Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1997). The list of critically acclaimed films from Iran which have been released in this country over the last four years is probably larger than for any other non-English speaking country: Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us; Makhmalbaf’s last two features, Gabbeh and A Moment of Innocence; Makhmalbaf’s daughter Samira’s first two films, The Apple and Blackboards; Makhmalbaf’s wife Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman; Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon and The Circle; Majid Majidi’s The Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise; and two films that tied for the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes in 2000, Djomeh and A Time for Drunken Horses. What is so exhilarating about these releases is that they represent the rapid emergence of a major film and culture industry.

However, this recent surge of Iranian films in the U.S. is somewhat misleading. Iranian film has been around for a very long time and the current leaders in the Iranian film industry — Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami — have been working since the 1970s and early ’80s.

Although the first films to receive wide distribution in the U.S. are their latest, there is an entire body of work for each of these directors waiting to be discovered in the West. It’s not that Iranian film has suddenly gotten interesting in the last four years. It’s that this film culture that has been putting out some of the most interesting work in the last decade and a half has finally begun to get distribution in the States. And so, like Kieslowski’s Decalogue, which had been unavailable until 1999, much of Makhmalbaf’s work, previously only screened at occasional film festivals and retrospectives, is now only a video store away.

The seven features that have been released by Facets Video start with Makhmalbaf’s fourth film, Boycott (1985), and include The Peddler (1986), The Cyclist (1989), Marriage of the Blessed (1989), Once Upon A Time, Cinema (1992), The Actor (1993), and a documentary about Makhmalbaf, Stardust Stricken, Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Portrait (1996). Facets has also released a collection of two of his short films, Images from the Qajar Dynasty (1992) and A School Blown Away By the Wind (1996), both of which, as Facets states, “are study-films of sorts” for Once Upon A Time, Cinema and Gabbeh (1996) respectively.

I’ve only seen three of the films, Boycott, Marriage of the Blessed, and The Actor, and the two short films, and so it is difficult to make broad generalizations about Makhmalbaf’s body of work. However, there are definite parallels and affinities between the three features that suggest several of Makhmalbaf’s preoccupations. All three films focus on characters who undergo a mental breakdown as they attempt to live according to their ideals in a society which will not allow this. The three films also explore an ethics of photography, and by extension cinema, by questioning the “truth” of any image rendered from a subjective viewpoint. Makhmalbaf does not just stop at posing these questions though. Each successive film comes closer to terms with the divide between objectivity and subjectivity, idealism and everyday reality. If his starting point is the impossibility of remaining sane in a chaotic world, Makhmalbaf ends by offering the hope that there still might be a way to survive.

Boycott (1985)

As a youth, Makhmalbaf had been engaged in political activism against the Shah, for which he spent four years behind bars and was nearly executed. The same fate befalls Valeh (Maji Majidi), the protagonist of Boycott, who is arrested as a communist for trumped up charges to kill the Shah. In this case, however, Valeh is unable to escape the death sentence imposed on him. The film offers a psychological portrait of a man trying to come to terms with the death that continuously hangs over him.

At the start, Valeh is deeply committed to socialism. Once he’s imprisoned and unable to take care of his wife and newborn child, Valeh begins to doubt all of the political beliefs he previously held. As he says to a fellow prisoner, “What is going to happen to my family? Ideology doesn’t answer that.” Soon, the experience of facing death while being constantly barraged by the communists in prison (who want him to die a Marxist hero) leads Valeh to a breakdown. He says, “For the moment, I am being obliterated. Imperialism and socialism are the same to a dead person.” This obliteration is made real for Valeh through visions he begins to have of himself being buried, his face decomposing as ants eat away at his skin. He sees what death will do to him and this frightens Valeh because his political beliefs no longer matter. If he still believed in socialism he might feel his death had a purpose. Instead, he’s trapped between the state that has sentenced him to death and the political cause that he feels led him there, a cause he no longer believes in.

Makhmalbaf visually represents this progressive mental breakdown through the use of many shots from Valeh’s point of view. This perspective is seriously destabilized, however, by jerky camera movements and lens distortion, representing his deteriorating mental state. These visual disruptions allow the viewer to see, through Valeh’s eyes, a world that no longer appears normal or stable. But Makhmalbaf does not stop there. He films many of the non-subjective shots from bizarre angles, either too high or too low, creating a sense of disorientation that is not directly connected to Valeh’s perspective, almost as if he’s suggesting that this distorted view of the world is reality and not just a function of Valeh’s breakdown.

Marriage of the Blessed (1989)

Makhmalbaf’s unsettling visual style shows up most stunningly at the beginning of Marriage of the Blessed. It begins with a remarkable shot from the top of a medicine tray that is being pushed through the hallways of what looks to be a hospital. The viewer does not at first see who is pushing the tray, although hands do appear suddenly in the foreground to prepare a syringe. As the tray guides us through the hallway, we turn a corner and see a man in front of us at the end of the hallway. We draw closer and the man begins to back away and scream. We still have no information about who he is, where we are, or whether the tray even has anything to do with the screaming patient. We pass him and enter a large room, where we see from the low perspective of the tray a variety of men wearing hospital gowns who are walking back and forth and acting erratically. There is a cut to wartime footage. Then, we cut back to the hospital room where we now hear the sounds of machine gun fire and bombs. We cut again to the war and back to the hospital where the moving tray comes to rest next to the bed of Haji (Mahmud Bigham) who, we are about to discover, has been locked up in an insane asylum and is being released to his fiancee’s care.

We soon learn that Haji’s breakdown is a result of photojournalistic work he had done during the Iran-Iraq War. This opening sequence, then, could very well represent the distortion of Haji’s worldview, especially the cuts to war footage. However, Makhmalbaf chooses not to tie these cuts directly to Haji’s perspective and once again implicates the viewer in an unstable point of view. This disorientation is perfectly suited to the film, which follows Haji and his fiancee, Mehri (Roya Nonahali), as they try to assimilate Haji back into everyday life. He takes a job at a newspaper in the hopes that returning to photojournalism will help him work through his trauma. All he is able to see through the viewfinder, though, are drugs, poverty, homelessness, and crime.

Like Valeh in Boycott, Haji’s struggle is related to his sense of purpose. As he tries to uncover the injustice around him, he feels more and more powerless to change things. Mehri urges him to leave this search for purpose behind, saying “We’ll manage somehow. We don’t need ideals.” Haji responds, “These [ideals] are all I have.” An opposition is set up between an idealistic vision of how the world should be and the actual reality of that world as it exists. Mehri realizes that the former position is an untenable one, that it has led to Haji’s frustration and mental breakdown. As photojournalists, she realizes that they both could live a very comfortable existence in ignorance.

Despite this, Haji is unwilling to accept the world as it is and is therefore unable to stop the visions of poverty and injustice that encroach on his and Mehri’s attempts at happiness. Mehri sums the situation up perfectly by telling Haji, “You are from paradise. You can’t stand the purgatory.”

The Actor (1993)

Visually, The Actor is the most conventional of the three films. Makhmalbaf provides very little in the way of an off-center visual style. (In fact, there is really only one instance of this: late in the film, a stunning shot from high above an apartment tracks through three rooms, each of which contains one of the main characters isolated from the others, as if they’re in their own little cells.) And the conflict which lies at the heart of The Actor is not as extreme as it is in Boycott and The Marriage of the Blessed. Where politics lie at the heart of the other two films, The Actor instead focuses on the struggle for meaning in the domestic sphere. Yet, as different as the film appears, the conflict which lies at root shares much in common with the previous films.

Akbar Abdi (played by famous comedian Akbar Abdi), and his wife, Simin (Fatemeh Motamed-Aria), are childless as a result of Simin’s infertility. In a desperate attempt to provide children for Akbar, she finds a deaf and dumb gypsy (Mahaya Petrossian) who can marry Akbar, bear him a child, and then be paid to leave. Despite the fact that the gypsy has a number of her own children, she does not get pregnant, and this drives Simin mad.

Both Akbar and Simin are searching for purpose and meaning in a marriage that does not seem to be working out. Akbar is increasingly disturbed by the fact that, in order to support Simin and his mother (who continues to bear children despite her age), he is forced to accept acting roles lightweight, comic films rather than serious, artistic ones. Simin, meanwhile, slowly goes insane because she is unable to provide a child even after hiring the gypsy. They both struggle against the societal constraints which have been placed on them as husband and wife. Akbar suffers through a job he hates in order to bring home money and Simin is tortured by her infertility because she has been told that she needs to provide a child. Although their problem is not as life-and-death as the conflict in Boycott and The Marriage of the Blessed, the opposition that lies at the heart of The Actor is still between an idealized vision of the world and actual reality. Like the protagonists in the previous films, Simin refuses to give up her fantasy about the way her life should be (i.e., as a mother) in the face of her infertility. Akbar, on the other hand, lives in the world of practicality. He debases himself in his comic films in order to be the breadwinner, despite the fact that he’d prefer to be an impractical dreamer, making artistic films. Once again, Makhmalbaf’s characters are confronted with the frustrations of bridging the gap between dreams and real life.

Reconciliation to Reality

The search for sanity lies at the root of all three Makhmalbaf films. Although the particulars of each character’s struggle differ, they are all alike in that they search for a way to attach meaning to the chaos of daily life. Valeh loses his bearings between the two ideologies of imperialism and socialism, as he mourns the loss of an actual life with wife and child. Haji suffers under the weight of the sadness, violence, and injustice he sees through his camera, able only to portray this injustice without the power to alleviate it. Simin loses her grip on reality because she cannot do the one thing her society and family tell her to do, bear children. And Akbar feels mounting dissatisfaction from compromising his ideals. In a sense, all of these characters suffer from what Mehri tells Haji in Marriage of the Blessed: “You are from paradise. You can’t stand the purgatory.”

Each film offers increasing degrees of reconciliation, not between idealism and everyday reality, but reconciliation to that reality. The characters are all unable to give up their individual struggles, but each film’s characters are progressively better able to deal with daily life. Though Valeh in Boycott is put to death, he smiles, in the rain, before being shot. Haji is returned to the insane asylum at the end of Marriage of the Blessed, but he escapes and calls Mehri to say goodbye. The last we see of him, he crosses a street, reentering daily life regardless of the fact that he has not been cured of his illness. The most optimistic ending comes in The Actor, which brings us to another insane asylum. Simin has been brought there because she has had a breakdown. Akbar comes to visit and sees her caring for a child whom they’ve adopted and whom she believes is her own. The asylum nurse tells Akbar that Simin should remain there in order to get better, but Akbar tells Simin to get in the car because it’s time to go home. Rather than escape, Akbar openly defies the asylum in order to reintegrate his wife into their daily life. None of the three protagonists is exactly sane at the end of the films, but each seems progressively more willing to deal with the real world regardless.

Makhmalbaf and Film

This reconciliation to uncertainty and instability also exists in Makhmalbaf’s characters’ relationship to photography and film. He starts by positing the camera as an oppressive tool of the state and in each progressive film takes some of the oppression away so that, while the camera never represents a purely benevolent tool, the possibility of using it to root out injustice arises. In Boycott, photography is at its most extreme as a tool for manipulation and exploitation. People snap photos of Valeh as he is meeting with fellow communists and it is these pictures that end up convicting him. Then, at the show trial at which he is sentenced to death, the entire proceeding is performed for the TV crews present. When he is first led into the courtroom, the space is filled with police officers who are told to change clothes for the filming. Once they look like civilians, the cameras start rolling and the “judge” and “defense attorney” address their presumed audience, disregarding Valeh. The moment he begins to speak in his defense, the proceedings end, the police change back into their uniforms, and he is led out of the courtroom.

In Marriage of the Blessed, cameras offer not only the obfuscation we saw in Boycott but, for the first time, they become tools that are capable of discovery as well. It is clear that Haji is less interested in photography than in uncovering injustice. Given the chance to work for a newspaper after getting out of the asylum, he risks his position by refusing to take the safe, unchallenging photos his editor requests. And yet, even if he is not particularly invested in photography as an art form, it is through his camera that he is able to expose the inequity around him. Instead of being simply a tool of the state, photography finally provides the opportunity to protest it as well. Again, however, the camera is not used for wholly beneficial purposes. When Haji begins to photograph the city as he believes it really is, there are many scenes which feel aggressive and exploitative. He wanders around in the darkness, surprising sleeping homeless people with his camera’s flash. Most of the time, his subjects smile. But in several scenes, they put their hands up to cover their faces. When he photographs people as they are committing petty thefts, his camera is pressed right up in their faces, constituting more of an assault on the subject than objective and impassioned spectatorship.

The criminals plead with him to stop, trying to explain their actions, but Haji just keeps snapping pictures. Ironically, after Haji escapes from the asylum, a photographer snaps a picture of him sleeping on the street. In reponse, Haji says, “Don’t take pictures of me.” This creates an ambiguity where the camera becomes a tool with the capacity both to uncover injustice but also to commit it against the photographic subject.

The Actor provides a type of bridge between these two extremes. Akbar has felt exploited by the camera because he is forced to work in demeaning roles to make money. Still, he is willing to put up with it in order to achieve his own goals — making artistic films — at some point in the future. By the end of the film, he accepts the exploitation of the camera in order to use it as a tool of statement. The ambiguity in each of these films seems to draw strength from Makhmalbaf’s own relationship to cinema. In an introduction to Once Upon A Time, Cinema, he writes,

“In my childhood I did not go to the movies with my mother, and on one occasion I stopped talking to my mother for some time because she had gone to the movies.

“The reasons for my objections were clear to myself. Cinema in Iran meant at best selling dreams to a people who lived in misery, and at worst it amounted to nothing more than the spread of dissipation in a society that longed for an ideal.

“I went to the movies at the age of 23 — after the revolution. I decided to express my disapproval of the continuation of the pre-revolution cinema by making a completely different film.”

Despite his original distrust of the camera, Makhmalbaf began to use it in a different way. And that’s exactly what each of his characters in these films eventually tries to do. At first, they struggle amid the chaos of reality, but come to accept that chaos in order to continue working towards their ideals. Luckily, audiences in the U.S. now have the opportunity to experience this pragmatic idealism for themselves.