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Manuscripts Don’t Burn

No Hiding: Mohammad Rasoulof

Mohammad Rasoulof is the very model of the filmmaker as defiant activist, an Iranian artist who confronts injustice and repression through his cinema knowing full well the consequences of such an act.

‘The White Meadows’

In the 1990s, when Iranian cinema first broke out of film festivals and museum programs and started appearing in arthouses, filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi worked within the severe government-imposed limitations on subject matter (everything from politics to physical contact between the sexes) by focusing on films about children and rural life. Other filmmakers hid messages and social commentary in genre trappings and metaphor.

With The White Meadows (2009), Rasoulof confronted Iran’s oppressive culture through the metaphor of a surreal and savage Gulliver’s Travels journey, an allegory that was not lost on audiences. The next year he was arrested, along with fellow cinematic rebel Jafar Panahi. And like Panahi, he responded with another cinematic provocation. The even more audacious Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) strips away the metaphor to portray Iran’s government as an authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. These two films are among the most daring—and the most powerful—Iranian films of the past few decades.

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Videophiled: Mohammad Rasoulof’s ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’

ManuscriptsBurnWhat’s most startling about Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2013 Iranian thriller Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Kino Lorber, DVD, Netflix) is its audacity. Iranian filmmakers have a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. This film puts its portrait of authoritarian oppression out in the open.

We open on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, then take a circuitous route through the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for the vindictive minister of the security services, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities and anxieties of everyday life.

The script is complicated and a little confusing, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and it gets a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. There are echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for his efforts. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). The film was, of course, banned in Iran and Rasoulof (against the advice of friends) returned home to Iran after premiering the film at Cannes (where it won the FIPRESCI Prize), where a prison sentence hangs over his head. His passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.

In Persian with English subtitles. No supplements. Also available to stream on Netflix.

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VIFF 2013: Vancouver’s Iranian, European Views

Iranian cinema has a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2009 The White Meadows offered the oppressive, authoritarian culture of contemporary Iran as a warped Gulliver’s Travels through a lifeless salt marsh of islands out of some surreal medieval world. What’s most startling about Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn is its audacity in projecting a portrait of the authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. Opening on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, the film takes a circuitous route to outline the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for a vicious minister, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities of everyday life.

‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’

The script is overly complicated, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. I found echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens, but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for this. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). As of now, his passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.

Trapped, also of Iran, is a more conventional thriller that opens with a sense of optimism and possibility, thanks to a groovy theme song from Cat Stevens. Nazanin Bayati is a first-year medical student in need of housing (the dorms are full) and Pegah Ahangarani is a fast-living salesgirl with a spare room and manic-depressive symptoms. It seems headed for psychological drama, an Iranian Single White Female maybe, until Ahangarani is arrested for debt and Bayati and ends up tangled with a gangster loan shark.

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