TORONTO: Mohammad Rasoulof is perhaps best known in the Western media for having been arrested in 2010 – one of several filmmakers Iranian authorities detained that year for their work, the best-known of whom is Jafar Panahi.
Rasoulof was an award-winning filmmaker before his detention and, like Panahi, he has continued to work since his arrest.
“Good-Bye” (2011) received both the Jury Prize and Best Director Award at Cannes that year. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” (2013) won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes and this past week the film had its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The title “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” nods to Mikhail Bulgakov’s renowned “The Master and Margarita” and, like the Soviet novelist, Rasoulof is interested in writers.
His story centers on three ageing, left-wing dissidents who survived state-sponsored purges in the early yeas of the revolution. Kasra, the most senior, has secretly written a memoir that includes an account of the state’s effort to assassinate him, and dozens of colleagues, in an engineered bus “accident.”
The writer plans to have the memoir published but he’s ill and before he dies he wants to spend time with his daughter overseas, so he’s willing to use the manuscript as a bargaining chip with the regime.
As insurance, the memoirist has given copies of his manuscript to two friends. The writers Kiran and Forouzandeh are an amiable pair who navigate the elaborate health regime of Forouzandeh’s wife so they can enjoy a bottle of bootleg booze together. It’s a dangerous burden they’ve shouldered for Kasra, since all three are under constant surveillance.
Representing “the regime” is a treacherous former dissident who cut a deal with the regime to get out of prison and is now an energetic state censor. He employs a pair of working class thugs, Morteza and Khosrow, as enforcers.
Rasoulof doesn’t demonize these two men. Khosrow has a little boy suffering from some unknown ailment that he can’t afford to have treated. It’s only when Morteza appeals to the invisible capo who employs them that he can take his boy into hospital.
There are interesting differences between the two films Rasoulof released since his 2010 detention and his previous work.
His 2009 feature “The White Meadows,” for instance, tells a richly allegorical story of a man who boats among a group of isolated islands, collecting the tears of grieving villagers. Shot from the shores of an Iranian salt lake, its cinematography – juxtaposing white shoreline, blue sky and mirror-like lake surface – is beautiful. Yet the narrative of the villagers’ tears of grief is clearly a reflection upon Iranian contemporary realities.
Released two years later, “Good-Bye” takes up the story of a banned journalist in contemporary Tehran trying to secure an exit visa in order to emigrate. The film’s political critique utterly direct, the cinematic language used to capture its (mostly interior) locations a chilly palette of blues and grays.
While featuring a more varied cast of characters, “Manuscripts” is as pointedly critical of the regime as “Good-Bye,” and is shot in the same wintry hues.
“I’m always looking at my surroundings and I find my stories there,” Rasoulof said through a translator. “In ‘Meadows,’ I was inspired by ancient Iranian literature, [which, during its long relationship to political oppression], achieved a certain aesthetic approach to metaphor. I admire this aestheticism and I try to bring it to my work.
“As I finished ‘Meadows,’ the post-2008 election stuff began in Iran. I saw a different side of Iranian society, one that wanted to be part of its own fate and decision-making. My view of my own work had changed under these new circumstances.
“So I wrote a story about a family with four members, who wanted to create peace among themselves in the midst of the chaos around them. But the contradictions between their family roles and their societal roles prevented this.
“It was while shooting this film that we were arrested. So my perspective had changed before I was sent to prison.” It was during his detention, he continued, that he decided to abandon elaborate metaphor in favor of a “more naked” perspective.
Rasoulof says the state’s approach to filmmakers changed after 2008 from a disciplinary one to a security one.
“It’s as if ... they have this illusion that everyone is trying to change the status quo in Iran. I think people were simply looking after their votes [in 2008]. They wanted someone who could answer their questions.
“When they securitized the [process], I could not get permission to shoot. I began to make a film and was sent to prison ... It took them a few months to give me a conditional permit to shoot ‘Good-Bye’ ... But the story the Culture Ministry approved was not the one I shot.
“When the shoot of ‘Good-Bye’ ended ... I told them many times that I don’t want to make anything political. I’m just a critic. I ask questions. It’s you who reacts politically to these questions because you don’t have answers for them.
“I’d like to work within the framework of law in my country. But with their perception of ‘law,’ they narrow the circle around you to the point where you feel you are suffocating.
“When I started to prepare for ‘Manuscripts,’ I ... wrote a script that I could actually shoot. You couldn’t think about every location, because you knew you couldn’t shoot at certain locations. So ‘Manuscripts’ is a direct outcome of my cinematic and artistic circumstances in Iran.”
Pragmatically, Rasoulof’s “cinematic and artistic circumstances” made interior locations more central to “Good-Bye” and “Manuscripts,” though the filmmaker says he tried to avoid this. It also made his crew small, close and anonymous – Rasoulof’s name being the only one in the credits.
“How should I be present at this stage but not be visible?” he said, describing the shoot. “How can I shoot actors that have never been to Iran on the film set in a way that seems natural?”
The exterior and interior shots in “Manuscripts” look like something out of a neorealist drama, so it’s a bit surprising to learn it has non-Iranian locations. Rasoulof said that, “of the seven actors who appear on screen [all fluent Farsi speakers], only two have been to Iran.”
The film was shot in Iran, he clarifies, but adds that none of its principal characters now live in Iran.
“I didn’t do anything special,” he said. “What’s important is that I made this film with very simple equipment. The ideas in the script helped in the shoot [and,] with the help of very good friends, I was able to do everything very simply. I don’t think it’s easy to recognize which sequences were shot in Iran and which were not.”
Rasoulof declined to disclose the film’s shooting locations.
The filmmaker is concerned about the restrictions the state has visited upon Iran’s cinema institutions, and what impact it could have on the country’s internationally respected independent cinema. He is particularly anxious about the separation of art from politics.
“What matters most,” he said, “is that the presuppositions in the minds of artists, that if a work of art has political implications, then it is devoid of artistic value ... Even renowned Iranian filmmakers look down on political cinema. I don’t think they ask themselves how this presupposition entered their psyche.
“What really worries me is the creeping movement of the state toward tightening this mind set, this circle. Then everybody will have this assumption that art is this very sacred thing and that politics somehow contaminates it.
“This censorship ... is a much more dangerous thing than the censorship that happens with knives at the Censorship Ministry.
“I don’t know what to say because my feeling is that circumstances are changing in Iran. Even small changes make me optimistic. Just today [Sept. 12] I learned that the House of Cinema has been reopened after more than two years. Maybe it’s a bit childish that when you’re given such a small thing it makes you so happy. But this is the condition we’re in, and we have to accept it.”
The exodus among young Iranians has accelerated in recent years, and a large number of artists are among thisnumber. Rasoulof still describes himself as an Iran-based filmmaker but he doesn’t complain about those who decided to leave.
“Filmmakers under pressure naturally have decided to make their films outside of Iran,” he noted. “I think this is a very good phenomenon. But I find my stories in my surroundings. I have difficulty writing stories outside Iran.
“Now that I am outside Iran, journalists ask me how I compare life inside Iran with life outside Iran. I say, ‘I’ve never been outside Iran so I don’t know.’ One journalist laughed and said, Aren’t we outside Iran now? ‘Well,’ I said, ‘my body’s here but my mind’s there.’”