A particular highlight of the Cannes Film Festival last year (followed by the North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last September and, thereafter, the Toronto International Film Festival and elsewhere), Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn (a title which originates from Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”) is an uncompromising look at the oppression faced by intellectuals under a totalitarian regime. The government in question, though, is the home country of the filmmaker. The film was shot in secret and, when the film premiered as part of Un Certain Regard, the Iranian government opted to pretend that the film did not exist at all (and, at Telluride, the government touted the “two” Iranian films screening at the festival when, indeed, Rasoulof’s feature was the otherwise unmentioned third).
Seeing the film, it is no surprise that the establishment would prefer to ignore it. Rasoulof makes no effort to soften the tone (or the criticism), approaching controversial (in Iran) subject matter directly that he has otherwise addressed allegorically (in The Twilight, Iron Island and The White Meadows) until his groundbreaking Goodbye. The critical reception to Manuscripts Don’t Burn was overwhelmingly positive and yet the usual negativity crept in: “Great film, certainly, but it won’t get distributed in the U.S.” As usual, Kino Lorber has stepped in and proved those naysayers wrong.
[The following conversation was arranged by Ryan Werner at the Telluride Film Festival (where Rasoulof was the recipient of the festival’s Silver Medallion) and was translated (as it occurred) by the remarkable Mishana Hosseinioun. See also “The Bravery of Manuscripts Don’t Burn” on Keyframe.]
Jonathan Marlow: Manuscripts Don’t Burn was made surreptitiously. The Iranian government would seemingly be delighted if this film did not get released.
Mohammad Rasoulof: I was unsure whether I would actually be able to make the film or not. There was definitely uncertainty. I tried a few times and didn’t manage to make it. But then, finally, it worked out.
Marlow: In your earlier work, you deal primarily with allegorical situations. Your approach in this film and Goodbye has been a move away from allegory.
Rasoulof: My own condition as a ‘prisoner’ was allegorical on its own so I made films depicting similar metaphorical situations. As soon as these hard truths became a reality for me, I decided to tackle these matters more directly. The tone and language I use in my earlier films is something that I’ve drawn from the ancient Persian tradition. Metaphor and allegory and the lyrical element of my tone were influenced by the old poetic traditions (which, themselves, were in turn affected by the constraints of their time). At first, I didn’t want to face the regime head-on and to enter into an adversarial relationship. But they, themselves, picked a fight.
Marlow: It seems as if your protagonists are always somewhat outside of the mainstream of society. In your most recent film, you are telling a very challenging story by having protagonists that are largely unlikable in their actions. But, for one, you give a backstory that humanizes his behavior.
Rasoulof: This comes from my personal experience in prison. It is there that I understood that even the people working for the security apparatus are just like you and me. They did not have the horns of a devil. Some of them had this belief that what they were doing was right. Some just saw themselves as employees following orders. Then I also realized it does have to do with the individual and individual choices. I’ll never forget. My jailers were all different types of people. Some were really nice and tried to steer clear of the tensions between the system and me. Others were just really aggressive. They wanted to stir up trouble. In the end, the individual does matter. Even though the system itself is problematic, the individual also has choices that they make. One thing that’s been really important for me (from the first films that I made until now) is to emphasize that we’re all victims of our circumstances. The choices we make, the decisions we take are all a function of the situations we find ourselves. As a result of those circumstances, things may even turn ugly. They can end up taking on really fanatical beliefs. They can become scary. Some may think that they have good intentions but the results of their actions might be horrible. In Iron Island, we’re facing this benevolent dictator. When it came to maintaining the stability of the ship, he became ruthless. He was adamant that if things don’t go his way then there will be chaos on the ship.
Marlow: There would be anarchy. It seems, in each instance, you are not judgmental of these characters.
Rasoulof: It is really important for me. I just want to show their actions. I just want to depict these characters. I do not have any answers, really. I just evoke my questions. We are all looking for answers to these difficult questions.
Marlow: With Manuscripts Don’t Burn, you are asking the audience to accept these characters without knowing what they’ve done. In the beginning of the film, we witness the results of their actions without any clarity about what has happened. Later in the film, you see the circumstances that led to the opening scene. The sympathies of the audience deteriorate over the course of the story.
Rasoulof: I am always trying to delve deeper and deeper to find the root of all those consequences and to understand, if it is this way, how did it become that way? I want to understand how this present situation came about and under what conditions. What caused that to occur?
Marlow: You are living in Hamburg now?
Rasoulof: I am still based in Tehran. But, after the first screening of this film, I haven’t returned to Iran yet [ed. Rasoulof returned to Iran last autumn and immediately had his passport confiscated]. I have been out of my country for seven months. My home, my workstation—everything—it is all in Iran. My extended family and my parents, they are all in Iran. But my immediate family, my wife and my daughter, they are outside of Iran right now.
Marlow: In Germany?
Rasoulof: Now in Germany. At first, it was in Paris. But, in order to create this film, I had to be in Germany.
Marlow: As far as the post‑production was concerned? Was there an expectation that the materials would be confiscated if you had done the post‑production in Iran?
Rasoulof: It would not have been possible. I cannot even imagine! It never even crossed my mind. Only the portions of the film where I had to absolutely shoot in Iran, I did. Otherwise, I shot elsewhere.
Marlow: You made a choice to eliminate the screen-credits (outside of your own)?
Rasoulof: It was a collective decision that we made not to name the actors.
Marlow: The actors continue to stay outside of Iran?
Rasoulof: Everyone that was in front of the camera is now outside of Iran.
Marlow: After Goodbye, how did you decide to approach this particular material? How did you come to construct the screenplay for this story?
Rasoulof: The whole incident of the bus plot…
Marlow: …which is based on something that actually happened.
Rasoulof: Yes. It was an actual incident that occurred. It was really on my mind. It is impossible to research this in Iran. There is nobody to talk to. The Internet is filtered. There is no book about it. It is a major taboo. As soon as I was able to leave Iran, I was able to do a complete investigation into this incident and to research it and to speak with the witnesses. At the same time, I was writing another story. I had a German producer at the time. They were very keen on starting that particular project because they really liked the storyline. This was before Manuscripts Don’t Burn. I had writer’s block while writing that particular storyline…
Marlow: You were obsessed with the other story?
Rasoulof: …because this particular one weighed heavily on my mind. It was like a stone in my throat. One day, I sat my producers down. I told them, ‘I can’t do this.’ Even though we had signed a contract and they had given me an advance. I didn’t know how to explain to them that I wanted to do this clandestinely and I couldn’t tell them. I just told them, ‘For a personal reason, I can’t start this film. Can we postpone it for a year?’ They’re really nice. They said, ‘Sure.’ They supported me. They said that whenever I was ready to write, do it. They didn’t really know what I was up to. I was really upset that I wasn’t able to share the truth with them. I was able to remove that lump from my throat by creating this project. I just completed the second draft of that original project with the Germans. It’ll get going soon.
Marlow: You will shoot that partially in Germany? Where will you make the film?
Rasoulof: It will be shot in Toronto. Toronto, Germany and Iran. I have no idea if I’ll be able to manage the Iran portion of the film. I might have to pick another country to make it.
Marlow: Have things changed significantly since the election? Has the situation improved in any way?
Rasoulof: I would like to think so.
Marlow: I appreciate your optimism. I wager you have no way to know until you return.
Rasoulof: It is hard for me. I want to be optimistic. I do not want to think that no change has taken place. My return to Iran is something I’m preoccupied by. I really hope there is some change. You cannot even mention my name or my film in the Iranian press. I basically don’t exist… [laughter] …in Iranian cinematic history.
Marlow: That applies to your earlier work as well?
Rasoulof: No. This is the first time that they’ve done this to me. Basically, they are ‘disappearing’ me. I don’t know why, exactly. I am just guessing that this is the case, that they’re intentionally doing this. This particular film of mine is very taboo. It tackles many taboo subjects.
Marlow: The catalyst for the script for Manuscripts Don’t Burn is the obsession—”obsession” is probably too strong of a word—was with the story about the bus accident and the witnesses. When you work, do you often get fixated on a premise? In The White Meadows, there is a core concept and everything radiates out from that concept. The same is true with Iron Island and even Goodbye. You generally work with very large ideas but the details of the plot are narrowed to only the essential elements.
Rasoulof: I can tell you that, in The White Meadows, there were three particular concepts and issues (and images). The cemetery in the water, for instance, and the corpses. Then there were other concepts that were less tangible, like superstition. In Iron Island, the issue of the boat itself was very interesting and important for me. And the submerging of the young man in the water. Then, in Manuscripts, the storyline itself was very important to me. This was why I went through six different drafts. Six rewrites after the ‘final’ draft. The filming kept being delayed because of my editing and re-drafting.
Marlow: In the U.S., the general perception of the work of Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf or Abbas Kiarostami is that they approach their material by distancing a specific narrative from the apparent subtext. In Manuscripts Don’t Burn and Goodbye, you approach your material very directly. Even if your films were made in Germany or France or wherever, you are still fundamentally an Iranian filmmaker. It is still very much your film. It is still very much an Iranian film.
Rasoulof: My relationship with my country is like my relationship with my parents, for instance. It is that kind of relationship. I feel this relationship is in a coma. It is that pivotal moment when you have to decide. My body is here but my heart and my soul are in my homeland. I feel like I have left something behind. You have got to decide sometimes. Do you pull the plug or do you keep quiet? I do not have a strong sense of nationalism or patriotism. Patriotism is meaningless to me. I am proud of my humanity not my nationality. Many of the world’s ills stem from nationalistic pride. When I speak of my homeland, I am not talking about geographical boundaries or a line around a country. It is history. It is a culture. It is more complex. I was born into a town where, as soon as I came into this world, I was surrounded by beautiful mountains. The mountains figure prominently. They play an important role. I want to emphasize that my tie to my country is not a tribal one. I do not see the world as being separated into different tribes and nationalities. I love the people in my country because I know them. They are dear to me. From the perspective of the people that I know and understand, I want to approach the more universal, humanistic issues. I tell my stories from a distinct perspective that is based in my country to show the human condition.
Marlow: Certainly, yes.
Rasoulof: For an artist, it is not necessary… It is not about fighting a regime or this or that. It is deeper than that. It is a deeper story.
Marlow: I would say that your Telluride medallion is representative of the universal themes of your stories.
Rasoulof: I am very happy to hear that. It has always been important for me. The way that they portray me in the media is completely false. They miss the point. I do not know what the regime is looking for here. Are they looking to sully the names of the artists just because they shed a critical lens on the situation in their country?
Marlow: They do not take criticism well. But it is at those times when criticism needs to be the loudest.
Rasoulof: Yes! Usually, with dictators, their tails fall everywhere. Anywhere you step, you are liable to step on their tail.
Marlow: You could have made a film that was more restrained. But you obviously could not resist making Manuscripts Don’t Burn in this way.
Rasoulof: [Laughter.] Yes, of course! I needed to tell this story. Even though I knew that it might be futile or useless. Even though I know I may be shouting into a well. This is personal. This is a choice that I made. It gives me peace.