Magazine article Screen International

Haifa: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Talks Arrest, Torture and Film

Magazine article Screen International

Haifa: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Talks Arrest, Torture and Film

Article excerpt

Once the hero of the revolution against the Shah, sharing a prison cell with some of the most prominent future leaders of the country, today he is an exile living with all his filmmaking family in London.

He was the target of repeated attempts on his life but seems oblivious of the danger, insisting in every interview and masterclass he gives on the same messages of love and peace, which concern not only filmmaking but also a political attitude that couldn't possibly please the Tehran regime.

Born into a poor family, prevented by his kindly grandmother from seeing films, for that "would doom him to Hell, from listening to music for that would deafen his ears to the sounds of paradise and never look at a woman, for that was an unpardonable sin", he started taking menial jobs when he was 12 to help provide for the family and by the age of 15 he was already at the head of a revolutionary cell fighting to throw over the monarchy, persuaded, he says, that once the revolution will come, all the evils of poverty will disappear from the face of the earth.

"When I was 17, I was arrested for trying to grab a policeman's gun and go out to shoot the Shah", he reminisced in his Haifa masterclass, talking to an audience that had earlier that day seen his film A Moment of Innocence in which recounted the incident.

Instead, he was shot in the back, thrown into jail, cruelly tortured day and night for six months and kept in prison for the next four years, until the revolutionary government took over and released him.

"Films like The Peddlar or The Cyclist come from my own life experience", he confirms, adding "nowadays I see too many young people without enough experience. They went to school, then to university, then they start making films but when they talk about poverty or politics, you feel they don't really know much about these things".

While in jail, he spent all his time reading every single book he could lay his hands on, on whatever subject in the world, at least a book a day, sometimes more, using the time behind bars to acquire the education he had never had the chance to get before.

From guns to culture

Once a free man, convinced that guns are not a solution and observing his former cellmates fighting and killing each other, he chose to dedicate himself to cultural activities.

"I started to work at a radio station, but Khomeini, just like my grandmother at the time, decided music should be banned. Not entirely but never longer than two minutes segments. During those two minutes, I was supposed to write a text for the announcer to read once the music was over. That's how I became a writer".

For him, the definition of "writer" is the person who writes. As for how good that writing is, it all depends on the writer's own qualities.

Iranian cinema

Looking back at his country's cinema, Makhmalbaf points out that "before the revolution, Iranian cinema was thriving, we were making close to 70 feature films a year. But two years before the revolution, Iranian cinema suddenly died. The reason was very simple. Hollywood movies had entered the country and two months later, no more Iranian cinema.

"Instead of producing one film, distributors could import 10 commercial ones to that much more profit. I am not supporting censorship, but we need some kind of limitation for the rubbish Hollywood and Bollywood are filling the markets with.

"Many national industries have keeled over under their attack. Immediately after the revolution, censorship affected all arts but in a way, it helped Iranian cinema grow up again".

"For a while Iranian filmmakers believed they could show reality, steeped as they were in the poetical traditions of their country, for lack of visual ones. …

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