With his new film “Manuscripts don’t Burn” (the title seems to have been taken from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita”) currently being shown in the non-competition program Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who came to Cannes to show the film today along with the cast, is raising the bar for Iranian filmmakers: rather than bypassing political content he’s confronting Iran’s regime without concessions, putting their intimidation tactics to the fore and confronting us with the naked reality of a shambolic state. His film’s depiction of a small group of intellectuals trying to keep Iran’s secret services from prying the written account of their assassination attempt by the country’s secret services from their hands is brave and makes for weighty narrative.
Rasoulof, whose previous film “Bé omid é didar” (“Goodbye” in Farsi) also had a strong political overtones, was arrested in March 2010 along with Jafar Panahi and Mehdi Pourmoussa at Panahi’s home. Also detained with them were fifteen others, including Panahi’s wife, their daughter and Rasoulof’s cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori, although they were released 48 hours later. Rasoulof was released from ward 209 of the Evin prison on 17 March 2010 on bail. Until today’s appearance here in Cannes Rasoulof had not been seen out and about since being jailed. He had been banned from making films and travelling outside Iran in December 2010.
The stakes in this new film are high, indeed, because the events recounted in the manuscript of the title are fully grounded in reality. In its constant quest to pressure so-called counter-revolutionary intellectuals into repenting, Iran’s government has been in a permanent cold war (or a cat-and-mouse game) with the intellectual elite, keeping files on people, knocking on doors, and placing wiretaps on telephone lines.
A few years ago, a number of these people went to a conference outside the capital and were on their way back in a charted bus. The bus’s driver had been tasked by Iran’s secret services to drive the vehicle into a ravine. Fortunately, he had a change of heart and the assassination attempt failed after the driver couldn’t go through with it. He simply veered off the road, slammed the breaks and ran outside, later claiming that he’d fallen asleep at the wheel. One of the writers on the bus, however, documented the event by writing about it. “Manuscripts” details the authorities’ patient and systematic search for all three copies of the highly-valuable and damning manuscript, torturing and asphyxiating their way through Tehran’s intelligentsia.
Adding a layer of complexity to this new film Rasoulof tells the story not only from the viewpoint of the persecuted writer and his colleagues but also from that of the persecutors, in the person of Khosrow (pictured in a still from the film, below), an unsympathetic but tortured trigger-man who drives bodies to abandoned homes for his boss Morteza, who comes along for the ride. Khosrow’s ten year-old boy suffers from a chronic disease and needs to be hospitalized urgently although a hoped-for wire transfer that will pay for the hospital stay is late arriving. He keeps taking calls from an increasingly upset wife who gives him updates on their son. I’m not sure whether this particular sub-plot was supposed to make Khosrow sympathetic to us or not. Added to this is the fact that when queried by his boss, Khosrow replied several times that he didn’t do this bidding for the money. Did that mean that he loved suffocating people?
“Manuscripts don’t burn” is living proof of the Iranian reality of censorship and intimidation, and goes further, via this medium, than any other form of communication. With his quiet indictment of thirty years of revolutionary ideals Rasoulof has put himself in harm’s way to make, and then bring, a film to the Cannes Festival, that for which he should be commanded and his film rewarded.