Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf was softspoken and lively at a press conference on Tuesday in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in Jerusalem, where he was appearing as a guest of the Jerusalem Film Festival to present his latest film, The Gardener, as well as hosting a retrospective of his films.

But behind his gentle demeanor is a man of great courage. I know “courage” is used often to describe all kinds of people who have overcome some kind of obstacle, but Makhmalbaf has truly taken a great personal risk in coming to Israel at this moment. Israeli journalists are a jaded bunch, but there was true excitement as we waited for him to arrive and speak.

Asked how he felt to be here, he mentioned that he had been here before. The Gardener is a documentary he made in Haifa with his son, Maysam, about the Baha’i Gardens and the Baha’i faith, whose believers are persecuted in Iran.

“I’m happy to be here with you,” he said. “To come from my country to your country has a great symbolic meaning... There are many reasons for us to feel friendship and peace, and there is really not one reason for us to fight.”

Makhmalbaf, who has made dozens of acclaimed and award-winning films, both features and documentaries, including Kandahar (2001), Gabbeh (1995), and Time of Love (1990), added, “I am one of the first Iranian filmmakers to come to Israel and that is an honor and I am proud of that.”

He said that all his films and all his books (he has published more than 30) are banned in Iran, and spoke about the thousands of “good politicians, artists and writers who are in prison in Iran.” He now lives in Europe with his family, many of whom are filmmakers themselves. In addition to his son, Maysam, his daughters, Hana and Samira, have made many films, as has his wife, Marzieh Meshkini. The family has been dubbed Iran’s Coppolas.

It’s clear that Makhmalbaf did not make the decision to leave his homeland lightly, though. After publishing articles critical of the religious establishment in Iran, “they sent terrorists to kill me.” He left Iran when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, and he described this president as simply a “microphone” for the religious leadership.

He says that he hopes the new president will be better, and urged the Americans, “If the government [in Iran] is a little bit better, the response of the Americans should be a little bit better.”

Much of The Gardener consists of conversations between Makhmalbaf and his son about the nature of religion and whether it inevitably leads to hatred and oppression. Asked what kind of conversation on these subjects he would have today if he could speak to his younger self, Makhmalbaf recalled how he attacked policemen in a protest against the Shah’s regime when he was 17 and served time in prison.

“I made a film about that, A Moment of Innocence.

When I made the film, I cast the policemen, and they played out the story of our younger selves. When I was 17, my idol was Che Guevara. When I was 13, it was Gandhi. Now I prefer Gandhi. Our goal is holy, but democracy is not the goal, it is the way, not the end in itself.”

He spoke with amazement of seeing an ultra-Orthodox man speaking with great animation on a cell phone here. Asking what we would call a “Jewish mullah” – a rabbi, he was told – he said, with a touch of astonishment in his voice, “Here, you can have religion and your own point of view.”

He has seen as many Israeli films as possible, and mentioned being particularly impressed by Amos Gitai’s Kadosh, a film about the religious community.

“It showed the pure human being in this community,” he said.

Asked about filmmakers who influenced him, he mentioned Satyajit Ray, as well as Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica.

Asked about portraying reality on screen, he said, “Reality is our mother. We could go crazy without reality.

That’s why politicians put us in prison, to cut us off from reality.... My younger daughter showed me something that said if you change one thing in your reality, if instead of having bread and cheese for breakfast for example, you take something different, you change yourself, and that’s when creativity begins.”

He is happy about the digital revolution in film, with some reservations. “Before this, cinema was in the hands of the rich and the powerful. Now everyone has the power of film in their hands. Now it’s a time when talent is more important than ever, because everyone can be a filmmaker. People used to think about each frame for a month. Now you film something, push a button and send it to the festival and don’t think about it at all.”

As he spoke about filmmaking, he mentioned that although he had no trouble shooting The Gardener in Haifa, some of the footage he shot was confiscated at the airport. While a less generous person would have opened the press conference complaining about this, Makhambalaf dismissed it with the philosophical attitude that has enabled him to continue creating in spite of great odds: “When you have the goal of peace in your brain and your heart, you go on. I am happy I made this film, and happy that I am showing it here.”

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