Mohsen Makhmalbaf has certainly led one of the more storied lives in cinema. In a fit of fundamentalist fervor, he was imprisoned at the age of 17 in pre-revolutionary Iran for stabbing a policeman. In prison, he shared a cell with the Ayatollah’s brother, and then in 1979, when the Shah was toppled, Makhmalbaf was released and began to make films.
Over time, he grew away from a conservative, fundamentalist outlook and his films became increasingly critical of the Iranian regime, with early works such as The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood (1991) first being cut from 100 minutes down to 65, and then eventually banned completely.
Makhmalbaf hit his peak as a filmmaker in the ‘90s, as part of the Iranian New Wave, with films like Salaam Cinema (1994) and A Moment of Innocence (1996). Both films share a certain sense of fictionalized reality (or realistic fiction), blurring the lines between documentary and feature. The latter of the two, A Moment of Innocence, is certainly Makhmalbaf’s most intriguing: he tracks down the policeman whom he stabbed all those years ago, and the two decide to make a film recreating the incident, casting younger versions of themselves, with the actual film following the creation of this film—cinema as redemption and atonement.
There is, however, far more to Makhmalbaf’s cinema than just the blurring of reality and fiction.
I’m curious about the passing of time—it’s been 22 years since A Moment of Innocence (1996) was made, and that’s the same amount of time from when you were imprisoned . Has that passing of time changed your relationship to the film and to the person that made that film?
I went to prison when I was 17. At that moment I hadn’t experienced art or any movies, because of religion. In prison, I didn’t have a chance to watch movies. But then the revolution happened when I was 22. I was an adult, and I started to see the stories of the cinema. After the revolution, I went to the cinema and I realized that cinema is a better tool for changing society. After prison and the revolution, I was amazed [to find] that we had a problem in our culture. It’s not only in politics—we changed our king, we changed the system, but we were not able to change our culture. So I thought it would be better if I changed my position from politics to art, and towards changing people’s minds through art and the camera.
At that moment I was thinking, OK, before the revolution a panic in the dictatorship will come and now in front of us we have people whose minds are full of what it’s like to live in a dictatorship. That’s why we were unable to successfully start our revolution, because we swapped one dictatorship for another. This time I started to fight the arguments within the people’s minds. So, throughout my films I try to change something that is a broken part of us. In A Moment of Innocence I was going to say OK, if you want to reach towards democracy, we should add tolerance to each other; we should understand each other, talk, have a dialogue with each other, not just fight with each other. It’s sort of criticizing the type of revolution that happened in Iran. Somehow, in A Moment of Innocence, it was such a thing that it ended up as a way of [reformation]. I was doing revolution by other styles, not using violence but by evolution. The film relates not only to my young self but to things I wanted to say where my subject was the Iranian society.
How far can cinema change audiences—have you been successful at all do you think?
Not only me personally, but our way, yes—because we created a New Wave in Iranian cinema by adding ways to see, to change our audience’s minds. Before [the] revolution, if I was to make Gabbeh (1995), I don’t think 2,000 people would have seen it; maybe even less than that. Even when I made this film after the revolution, we didn’t think people would watch this film—it is not a commercial film. It had an audience of one million—it made a cultural change and you could see how this New Wave of Iranian cinema could present a version of society that’s different from the image of Iranian society on TV in Iran.
You’ve said that Western cinema derived from the early influences of photography and theater, but that Iranian cinema doesn’t have the same relationship with photography or painting—that it has derived from the poetic tradition of literature in Iran.
Yes, that’s correct. Cinema in the West has rules based in photography and painting, so the audience [understands] the language of cinema through understanding the language of photography and painting. But Iranian cinema doesn’t have roots in photography or painting; photos and painting [were] forbidden in our culture because of religion. We don’t have this kind of story in our culture, but we have a lot poems, and we are inspired by our poems. We have a lot of images in our poems, the poets sometimes describe [an] image in their poem, so Iranian cinema has roots in the stories and images of poems.
How did you get those colors in Gabbeh? What was the process?
For Gabbeh, I was working like I was painting; we didn’t use camera lights, we were in the natural world, we would shoot and wait a long time to have the good light that we expected. Sometimes there was too much yellow, more than we wanted, for example, so we should wait a few hours for the sun to bring out the yellows we wanted. Sometimes we would gather flowers to put in the ground to get a more colorful scene. It was like hunting for color.For me, living in the U.K., the news here on Iran that comes through tends to be wholly negative; y’know, “bad place, dictatorship, women are oppressed,” all of which I’m sure has some level of truth to it, but for me, most of what I’ve learned about Iran, and about the rest of the world, has come through cinema.
Absolutely, this is independent news and history. The main history is in novels and the main news in the movies.
Your work has been censored a lot in Iran. How has that censorship, or the threat of it, changed your work over the years?
In Iran, censorship is rooted in religious fundamentalism and politics, and also it is part of Iranian culture. We don’t show things in front of our children; so for example, we don’t have cheating in our movies—religion doesn’t let us do that.
Censorship is rooted in a sense of politics, culture, and religion. But we were smart, we would always try to give [the authorities] a script and then we’d make another film. And when they tried to control that film, we gave them one copy and the real film was another copy.
We did a lot of things to send films out of Iran, or to change the copy in cinemas, but the authorities became smarter, little by little. We were smart in being able to make a film under their control, but little by little they became smarter, so they could control the film better. But not so much anymore—with the internet, they’ve lost their control on things here.
But all of my films, and my family’s films [all three of Mohsen’s children, as well as his wife, are directors or work in films]—which is around 40 films, both features and shorts—and all of my books, almost 30 books, are banned in Iran. Even my name is banned. TV and newspapers do not mention my name. It is another kind of censorship. They even tried to kill me when I was outside of Iran, because I [had] moved from Iran 14 years ago; I went to Afghanistan for two years, they sent terrorists to kill me, then I went to Tajikistan, again they tried to kill me, I moved to Paris they sent terrorists to kill me. They try to kill you, that is the style of the Iranian government.
But even when I am out of Iran, we make films to show to Iranian society. In the last year, BBC Persian has shown 10 films of me and my family for Iranian people, and they had an interview with me where they were talking about one of my films also. So Iranian people have access to art movies, even those that are censored, by TV channels from outside or via the black market inside Iran. We were able to put light amidst the darkness of the dictatorship of Iran.
You’re currently in exile, right?
Is making cinema in exile different for you? Are you approaching cinema in a different way?
I have made films in 10 different countries, and this September I will make another film in Italy, so that will be 11. So for example, I have made films in Korea, Pakistan, Georgia, India, Turkey, all different countries. I understood, in my experience, that human beings are the same. We laugh like each other, we fall in love like each other, we get sad like each other, we will have the same emotions in the same conditions everywhere. Human beings are the same. Only language is different. And language is the translation…how do I say, of sense.
We can understand things across different countries. So I can say now, making films is the same because I’m making films about human beings. When I make a film in Iran it is about all humans. A Moment of Innocence it is not only about Iran. Or The President, which I made in Georgia in 2013; when I show that film in different countries, the audience tells me, “OK it is here, this film is about us.” But something is different in that you should know a little more about different cultures. I try to go [deeper], to forget the first layer of our lives. Underneath, a little deeper, everyone is the same.
In The Gardener (2013) you hone in on the specific experience of the Bahá’í faith and the people following that faith, and you use the specificity of their condition to elaborate on the universal qualities that affect us all. Is that along the lines of what you were hoping to achieve with that film?
My reason for making this film was to make a film about a minority. I made The Gardener about the brutality these people suffer in Iran. They are under oppression of the Iranian society. They cannot go to university, or they are in prison. If they learn a lesson in the university of their home [the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, a clandestine university attempting to educate Bahá’í people in Iran], the police will arrest them. They don’t have jobs, the government pushes them out of the country.
Also the Iranian people—they don’t care about the Bahá’í. Not only the Bahá’í, but Christians, Jewish people. These kinds of people are under the pressure of the state, religion, and the Iranian government, so I put a light on their behalf, because then people know [an] example, or they listen, instead of thinking that, “They are working for this side, they are mad people” or anything like that. I try to break taboos to let people talk about different minorities. If Indian tourists came to Iran and were Hindu, we would be impressed to know about them. But not if they were from Iran. I try to talk about these kinds of people, I try to talk about the good life of the Bahá’í people which was established 150 years ago in Iran, because it is a very democratic and open-minded kind of religion. I am not religious at all, but I cannot stand by and see people hurt and killed because other people are different. I am a filmmaker, everything is an opportunity for me to make a movie. It is my hope to bring life to the cinema—how can we have poetry, cinema, life together, and make a sort of fusion of cultures?
I made a film about the Bahá’í, but it also about peace in the Middle East, and it is also about democracy, about the source of human beings, showing that they are the same. It is sort of a metaphoric film. It is not a very profitable style of moviemaking because nowadays we have a lot of business in the cinema. Cinema, for me, is now like the job of prophets—not the prophets of religion, but a sort of spiritual activity. It’s about something more than the materialistic way of looking at the world, looking deeply to the inside of human beings, because we are mortal, we easily can die, life is short, and we were not born to achieve many things in a materialistic way.
We have a short time in life and we should go more deeply to understand what is the purpose of our life—not our purpose derived from God. There is no purpose before we are alive, but we need a sort of meaning for our life, to make it more pleasant, to make it more acceptable. Many kinds of cinema nowadays are part of an industry, it is part of using and costuming everything to throw it out without changing our mood or changing our mind. So these kinds of films—Gabbeh, The Silence, The Gardener—it’s sort of me creating meaning in a world that has no meaning in it. We need meaning as human beings for ourselves.
Do you think there’s a bit of arrogance in us that we need our lives to have meaning?
Yes. I think we thought that, after food, we need meaning for our lives. If we don’t have meaning, we [commit] suicide. All of us, sort of, we survive not only via our health but also via our meaning. For some, the meaning of life is caring about their children, for someone else it is doing social activity, such as a human rights activist. For artists, it is creating beauty in a world where people’s eyes have lost their beauty. Creating meaning for me now, it is not only making films to survive in my personal life, it is a sort of communication with other parts of human beings, shared through culture—a sort of international conversation through art and artist, so that it is not only busy-ness in the end.
That’s part of the beauty of cinema: it can be a completely universal language. We all smile the same way—the human eye registers a smile the same no matter what culture you’re viewing the film from.
Cinema is the main language of human people nowadays. Because when we [use the] English language, if someone doesn’t know English they can’t understand us. But in film, in photography, in painting, in cinema, even if you couldn’t understand the meaning through the words you can understand many things. Cinema without order—we can understand each other through our cinema.
And that’s developing in a slightly strange way now with YouTube and Instagram, all competing in a way with cinema, but deriving through the same language.
Yes, you know we make an effect on each other. On YouTube, you will see a lot of movies, even if they are only small in size, but still you could have cinema in YouTube: they are tools. Cinema is [one type of] tool, but [a] good tool. Especially when you watch a film on the big screen with other people, it is a mirror. When you watch a movie on your mobile phone you are alone, it is like literature. But when you watch a film with other audience members, you smile, you cry with each other, it is another condition. Cinema can unite us all, not for politics, but for being human, to connect to each other. To lose your loneliness, to match your thoughts with reality.
It’s not just about making films, but getting them seen, getting them to an audience. Art without an audience is fairly useless, I think.
Absolutely, I agree with you. I don’t believe in art for art’s sake. Art is a love of creation and sort of a responsibility for human beings. Someone creating bread—the baker creates bread and he gives me bread, and I will give him film. It is sort of responding to the people that give us a lot of things to survive, so we need to give something back to them. So I am like this—to the baker I will give them my love in the movie.In terms of getting your films seen, how has that changed for you over the years? I mean, in the ‘90s Iranian cinema had a moment, with you, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jafar Panahi all getting big international releases. Has it changed much for you over the years?
Recently, cinema is not in good condition, especially after the internet. Less people go to the cinema to watch film, but on the internet they will watch the film. For example, we put The Gardener on YouTube and we saw 150,000 people watch the film on YouTube only. But in festivals—the film was in many places; it was released in the US as well.
But it depends on the film and the time. For example Kandahar [a film about Afghan refugees released just after 9/11] broke the box office record for Asian movies released in Italy, with $5 million [USD]. So sometimes films are related to time and the moment. Nowadays, you have fewer distributors because they think that people don’t go to the cinema to watch films, but still we have people making the films, still we have festivals, still we have arthouse movies. For example, this one distributor in the U.S.A. is going to distribute Salaam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence widely in North America.
So if a film has a soul, it will never die. Especially art movies—for example Gabbeh. I don’t think Gabbeh will die. I will die, but Gabbeh, The Silence, they will never die.
I think the internet has the potential to democratize cinema, because it means I can watch almost anything, in theory. But the cinema is often dictated by what distributors decide to put in there. And that, to me, is one of the most powerful possibilities of film on the internet: it allows me to travel the world without leaving the house. And though l love the cinema, I haven’t been much recently because the stuff I want to see is just not getting shown. Do you think there’s a line between the audience not having access to art and audiences ignoring its presence?
Cinema is a passage, between artist, critic, and the audience, with also a little industry. If you make very artistic films, the normal audience couldn’t understand. They have little knowledge of the alphabet of understanding the language of cinema, so in this case we can help them. For example, when we created the New Wave in Iranian cinema, we made 50 films per year in Iran, and we had [many] different magazines for cinema. And those critics could teach the audience how to look at a film, [and give them] the alphabet to understand it with.
Now we have all things on the internet. And different people watch different kinds of movies. We have a different kind of audience [just like] we have different kind of artists. Now when I make a film, I do not expect that 100 percent of the audience will watch that or like that. Each film has a different audience, [that] depends on the concept and style and language of the film. Some films are commercial and can be successful widely, but in the end they will die. But some film is more eternal. Many Bollywood films were successful in India or in the world, but they died—but still we watch Satyajit Ray movies. [There are] two kinds of life. Man’s life. Or a wider life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.