‘Even one drop of water in a dry desert can bring you a taste of paradise,” says Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the acclaimed Iranian director/author/human rights activist who is the head of the Israeli Feature Film Competition jury at the 31st Haifa International Film Festival, as he talks about his life’s work.
The festival runs through October 5 at the Haifa Cinematheque and other theaters around the city.
It features a retrospective of Makhmalbaf’s work, including his most recent feature film, The President
, which won the Audience Award at the Tokyo FILMeX Festival; The Gardener
, his 2012 documentary about the Bahai gardens in Haifa; A Moment of Innocence
(1996); and The Cyclist
(1987). The tribute also includes the documentary Daddy’s School
, about Makhmalbaf’s extraordinary family, all of whom – his wife, Marzieh, his daughters Samira and Hana, and his son, Maysam – are filmmakers.
To say that it is extraordinary to have an Iranian heading the jury of an Israeli film festival is an understatement, but Makhmalbaf has carved out a unique identity for himself in the world of cinema.
He has made more than 30 movies in 10 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel and Georgia, and his combination of iconoclasm and filmmaking talent has angered the Iranian government and other extremists.
“I want to change the world. I don’t want to make films so I can be a filmmaker. I want to make films so I can change the world,” he says.
Although he works in many different styles, a common thread in his work is a focus on the responsibility of the individual.
“It isn’t all the fault of the politicians, of some bad guy out there,” he says. “We all must do what we can. Politicians destroy the world but artists also destroy the world by making bad films.”
He has paid a price for his speaking his mind. When he was filming in Afghanistan, people threw grenades at his crew, and in Paris just a few years ago he received serious death threats. He has not lived in Iran for about a decade, and his home base is now with his children in London.
“I left Paris to be free from the bodyguards. I’m not afraid. It doesn’t matter when you die. It matters how you live. You have to think about life, do something that gives value. An empty life is nothing...Nelson Mandela, in prison he was not depressed because his life had meaning.”
Born in Tehran, he grew up in poverty, but was inspired by the love of his devout Muslim grandmother.
“For her, if someone went to the cinema, it was like he was going to hell,” he says, but her devotion gave him the strength he needed to work at dozens of jobs to help support his family.
Joining the anti-Shah partisans as a teenager, he was imprisoned for several years, and both the imprisonment and its aftermath were formative experiences for him.
“I had the experience of one revolution. I was searching for paradise but I found hell,” he says, speaking of the Islamic Revolution that swept Iran following the end of the Shah’s regime. But even before his disillusionment with the Iranian revolution, he became disillusioned with extremists in general, a result of his experiences in prison.
“I was held with 7,000 political prisoners. Before prison, I thought they were very good people. But they were dogmatic. There was the prison of the government, and then there was the prison of the prisoners.”
To keep himself feeling free, “I started to read books. I read history, philosophy, sociology, literature. Everything literary.”
Having left school as a child, he was hungry for knowledge: “When you don’t have enough knowledge, you can’t be free.”
Another part of his prison education was meeting and getting to know people who, later on, became prominent figures in the revolutionary government. “They were dogmatic people, fighting for ideology. And when you know these people, you know you don’t want to be with them.”
In the years after the revolution, Makhmalbaf gravitated toward the arts and had a successful career as an author and filmmaker in Iran. His 1987 movie The Cyclist
, about an Afghan refugee in Iran who needs money to pay his wife’s medical bills, brought him international acclaim, as did A Time for Love
(1990), a tragic love triangle told in three different ways; Gabbeh
(1996), a love story/folk tale based on stories of those who weave their lives into the carpets they create; A Moment of Innocence
(1996), a semi-autobiographical account of Makhmalbaf’s trial and imprisonment; and Kandahar
(2001), about a woman’s journey through wartorn Afghanistan to save her sister.
But eventually, he knew he needed to leave Iran, and although he misses the natural beauty of the Iranian landscape, he doesn’t long for home.
In 2012, he and his son made an extremely definite break with their homeland by filming The Gardener
in Haifa, spotlighting the plight of the Baha’is in Iran and the exquisite Baha’i gardens here.
His latest film, The President
, is an allegory about the abuse of power, and the cycle of violence sparked by revolutions that so often lead to more oppression under a different set of dictators. The movie, which was filmed in Georgia, concentrates on a dictator and his grandson on the run after a revolution, and is brilliantly constructed so that it is suspenseful, moving and even darkly funny at times.
It was clearly inspired by the revolutions he has observed, including the failed so-called Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and those of the Arab Spring.
“I followed the revolutions of the Arab Spring in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, and of course the revolutions in Iran and Iraq as well. I wanted to summarize all those stories in one fable and let audiences think about this model: dictatorship, revolution, anarchy, then another dictatorship...More than one million have been killed and injured during the past five years in the Middle East.”
He didn’t want a movie about “a cliche bad guy... no one is going to think deeply about that concept... Audiences in Russia said, ‘This is Russia.’ In China, they say, ‘This is China.’” He filmed in Georgia because he was the head of a festival jury there, and realized the cinematic climate was well suited for such a story there.
“There are a lot of countries where I couldn’t have filmed this story,” he says.
In Lebanon in 2010, he points out, his daughter Hana Makhmalbaf’s Green Days
, a film about the 2009 elections of Iran, was pulled from the lineup of the Beirut International Film Festival after a protest from the Iranian government.
While he is happy to visit Israel, he sees problems here, as he does everywhere: “The main problem of Israel is fear. The experience of Auschwitz is saved as a memory but it gives fear,” which can fuel the cycle of violence.
“In order to change the world, you need awareness, bravery and hope... I am not a big artist like Charlie Chaplin... but if I can change one person’s mind, and there is one less death, then my film is a success.”