The world of Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” will remind you of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, so much so that you begin to wonder whether the Iranian political elites mined Soviet history to figure out how to keep a lid on society. This would have not been the first such attempt to do in the region if we can rely on reports that Saddam Hussein’s library was larded with Stalin’s writings.
Like Koestler’s main character Rubashov, who was modeled on Bukharin, the victims of repression in Rasoulof’s film were unlikely threats to a police state that was reinforced by popular assent to clerical authority. They are three elderly writers who have joined together in a bid to publish a novel based on an incident that actually occurred to them, at least within the fictional parameters of the plot. Twenty-one writers were invited to a conference in Armenia on artistic freedom, including the three. Unbeknownst to them, the regime has lined up a driver who has agreed to drive the bus over a cliff, killing everybody including him. At the last minute he flees from the bus as it sits on the edge of the cliff.
Early on there is a scene between one of the writers and the author of the novel where tensions among the intellectual opposition to the dictatorship are displayed, a likely reference to the state of affairs in the 1990s when a crackdown was taking place. The author is determined to see the novel published, no matter the consequences. His friend, a poet, tells him that is not worth the trouble since the youth of Iran are not interested in politics. It is Steven Jobs they idolize, not Che.
As the three writers wrangle with each other over these and other matters that involve their role in a society that appears to have little use for them, two men are bearing down on them under the orders of top security officials who apparently do see them as a threat. Their job is to track down the manuscripts and terminate the writers. In cases such as this and the Moscow Trials, genuine fear and paranoia among the elites tends to overlap. One of the two is a muscle-bound enforcer named Morteza; the other is his assistant, a pious working-class man named Khosrow who is only working as a hit man for the money even though he continuously assures Morteza that he doing it to serve god. That does not stop him from checking an ATM every few hours to see whether the payment for his last execution has been posted to his account. With a sick son and major medical expenses, Khosrow would pcontinues at his dirty job even though he cannot help wondering whether god was punishing him for being a professional killer.
The two killers report to a man who is the counterpart to Ivanov in “Darkness at Noon”, the old Bolshevik who has become a hardened administrator of Stalinist “justice”. Despite having been part of a powerful revolution for human freedom, Ivanov justifies his role as necessary for the survival of socialism. In “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, the security official served time in the Shah’s prisons just as Ivanov did in the Czar’s. When he meets with the writers, one at a time, he makes sure to remind them that he had somehow earned the right to be their judge, jury and executioner since he had a revolutionary past like them. But unlike them, he stood for the survival of the Iranian revolution against the “cultural NATO”, a term that I had not heard before but that clearly resonated with what I have seen from the Iranian media and its friends in the West.
The film is based on the Chain Murders of Iran that occurred over a ten-year period, beginning in 1988. Even though I try to keep track of what is occurring in Iran, I had not heard about this before. Wikipedia supplies the names of some of the victims:
- Pirouz Davani – an Iranian leftist activist last seen in late August 1998 while leaving his residence in Tehran.
- Hamid Hajizadeh – a teacher and poet from Kerman, along with his 9-year-old son, were found stabbed to death in their beds on the rooftop of their home on 12 September 1998.
- Kazem Sami – Iran’s first Health Minister after the 1979 Islamic revolution, was stabbed to death November 1988 by an assailant posing as a patient at a clinic. No one was arrested.
- Ali Akbar Saidi Sirjani – Iranian writer, poet and journalist who was imprisoned in 1994 and died shortly after while in prison
- Ahmad Tafazzoli – a prominent Persian Iranist and master of ancient Iranian literature and culture found dead in January 1997.
- Ebrahim Zalzadeh – editor of the monthly magazine Me’yar and the director of the publishing house Ebtekar, aged 49, went missing after leaving his office for home. His corpse was found on 29 March 1997 stabbed to death.
A full list of the 107 victims of death squads can be seen here: http://www.iran-bulletin.org/witness/infominlist.html
Mohammad Rasoulof used non-professionals and a digital camera to make this remarkable film. For the security of the actors, they are not named in the closing credits. Given the constraints he operated under, it is remarkable that he has made such a fully realized treatment of the Iranian political situation that will certainly have an impact in his country and the rest of the world. It has the tautness of a Costas-Gravas film with a knowledge of the country’s dissident intellectuals that can only come from direct experience. In 2010 he was sentenced to six years in prison but eventually the sentence was reduced to one year. When visiting Iran from Germany, where he now resides, his passport was seized and he cannot leave the country.
The film opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. My suggestion to New Yorkers is to make plans to see it because it is both a powerful drama and a document of how the Islamic Republic treats the real elites, the men and women of conscience who refuse to be silenced. It will open again in the fall at theaters everywhere and on VOD. I will make sure to post an announcement when the dates are firmed up.
“Evergreen: the Road to Legalization” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York. This very timely documentary deals with the fight to pass proposition I-502 in Washington State, a referendum that would make marijuana legal.
Because the film comes from First Run Features, a film distribution company that is heavily committed to progressive documentaries and feature films, I had expected it to be a straightforward advocacy for the bill. But as it progressed, it became much more of a treatment on the rather complex social and economic forces at work in the legalization campaigns nationwide.
You certainly might have expected the opponents of the bill to have their say but like me you might have been surprised to discover that the opponents were not exclusively “just say no” conservatives. A large part of the no vote was based in the pro-legalization camp that argued that the bill did not go far enough, particularly on its acceptance of a DWI provision that would victimize people who had enough of the drug in their bloodstream to earn them a jail term but clearly not enough to impair their driving. As many pot smokers allege and as evidence points out, there are no indications that users of medical marijuana ever get into accidents on the highway.
Some of the pothead opponents of the referendum were people who would have lost money if it passed. If you were in the black market, you could make a fortune. But if it was legal and subject to regulations, it was going to be less profitable.
The bill did pass. While it is not as deep-going as the Colorado legalization referendum that also passed, it opens the door to further advances. In a way, the cries of sell-out that emerged during the campaign for Proposition I-502 remind me of the denunciations of Kshama Sawant for voting for a $15 per hour minimum wage bill in Seattle, a base of support for the marijuana legalization campaign. You can read a letter to the ISO newspaper along these lines (When $15 isn’t really $15) as well as an editorial that took note of the importance of having the bill passed but with some questioning of Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s failure to keep their supporters abreast of their thinking. They were originally opposed to a bill weaker than the one they had initially supported but felt it necessary to have it passed before it was weakened any further.
These sorts of questions are exactly the kind that the left will be confronted with as it continues to grow in size and influence in an epoch of declining wages and living conditions. “Evergreen” is a good film to watch on how to maneuver in complex political situations even if the goal was not as essential to working-class survival as the minimum wage. However, for a close relative of mine who served four years in prison this was a matter of life and death. You can read about the ordeals of Joel Proyect here: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-03-01/news/1992061029_1_lawyer-growing-marijuana-sentence
“Northern Light” opens at the Maysles Cinema in New York on June 16th. As is the case with many indie films being made today, it relied on Kickstarter for the $25,000 it needed to complete.
Directed by Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff, this is a cinéma vérité documentary about the men who participate in a yearly 500-mile snowmobile race in northern Michigan on an ice-covered lake in the dead of winter each year. Bentgen grew up in a small town in the area and decided to spend several years with his co-director filming the families of three men who were participants.
Like the documentary about the four young African-American lesbians from Newark I reviewed in conjunction with the Human Rights Film Festival, the subjects of “Northern Light” are just as remote from most of our experiences. That is what makes such documentaries so valuable. They give people committed to social change and understanding of how ordinary working people live and play, getting past the stereotypes of NASCAR races, etc. Even though the men are racing snowmobiles, they come from the same milieu as stock car racers, although admittedly those driving at county fairs rather than at courses where first prize could be a million dollars.
The families in “Northern Light” are just one step beyond foreclosure. One man drives a sixteen-wheeler but says that he could make more money working in a Burger King. They attend church every Sunday but don’t appear particularly pious. For most, the snowmobile races are a way to transcend the bitter cold and bleak economic conditions of northern Michigan. This statement by co-director Nick Bentgen should give you an idea of what to expect from his film:
Throughout the production of this film, I was humbled by the stubborn work-ethic of the families I came to know. Walt woke before dawn to drive his eighteen-wheeler to Alabama, Texas, and Pennsylvania. In the span of a single day, Marie worked the early shift at Walmart, picked up extra hours as a cleaning lady, cooked dinner for her children, and studied for her exams late into the night.
The families of rural Michigan are the inheritors of pioneers and homesteaders; ruggedly independent and determined, living with hope in an unforgiving environment and retaining a spirit of self-reliance I can know only by example. I’m amazed by the footage we’ve captured–its quality not created by any technique, but found, in the genuine and generous nature of three compelling American families. I’m proud to have shared this experience with them.