[Reader-list] On Mohsen Makmalbaf and Iranian Cinema
shuddha at sarai.net
Mon Dec 3 12:46:37 IST 2001
Dear all on Readers List,
many of us are avid fans of Iranian Cinema, and following from the
screenings of Iranian Films at Sarai recently have particularly appreciated
the film sof Makhmalbaf. Some of his recent writing on Afghanistan has also
found a ready readership in Delhi, and in Sarai.
Here is a letter written by one, Farzad Bawani - to the Monthly Review
magazine, protesting agains the recent tendency to lionize Makhmalbaf. I
thought that it is worht a considered look, especially as it traces
interesting and hidden intellectual and political histories in Iran.
Also, let us not forget, that Tehmineh Milani still faces a treason trial in
Iran - which has recently been getting a lot of good press as an oasis of
"Modern Islamic Enlightenment" . Harsh Kapoor continues to remind us about
this on this list.
This posting is from Nettime and was contributed by Gita Hashemi, and I am
enclosing her prefatory note before Farzad Bawani's essay
Prefatory Note by Gita Hashemi
I do not have the actual source of the letter forwarded below since I have
received it via a number of different routes, and I don't seem to be able
to trace it to its originating address or place of publication.
Nevertheless, since somone on this list brought up Makhmalbaf's article in
a recent posting about the American war on Afghanistan, it seemed
appropriate to add a bit of context (unfortunately, so much of even the
intellectual opinning in the West is without adequate understanding of the
history). The issues raised in the letter below are pretty current in the
Iranian intellectual community. The central questions, however, are
fundamental to any discussion of the current global violence:
1) Can memory and history be erased?
2) What are the conditions of forgetting or forgiving?
3) What are the present-day power relations that condition our
understanding of history?
FARZAD BAWANI'S LETTER TO THE EDITORS OF MONTHLY REVIEW ABOUT MOHSEN
In your issue of November 2001, I found an article on Afghanistan, by an
Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Your editorial note introduced
Makhmalbaf as "Iran's most celebrated film maker and a political prisoner
under the Shah." However, to many of us (Iranian activists of the 70s and
80s), Makhmalbaf's record is far from this strait forward presentation.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf was imprisoned under the Shah's regime for his attempt
to disarm a police officer. Based on his own account, he was a young man
with extreme religious tendencies, whose opposition to the Shah was
colored by his hatred of the ex-regime's policies of secularization
(albeit superficial secularization). Following the revolution, Makhmalbaf
became the regime's most active watchman in the movie industry of Iran.
In his early interviews (between 1979-1983), he proudly spoke of his role
in purging the cultural scene from secular thought. His discourse
frequently abused Iranian secular filmmakers, and vilified Iranian Left.
During the first three years of revolution, he hailed the fundamentalist
oppression of women, students, minorities, and Iranian Left as an
authentic Islamic campaign against counter-revolutionary forces.
=46ollowing the consolidation of power in 1981 by the fundamentalists,
Makhmalbaf extended his cooperation by joining their campaign of terror.
When mass arrests, brutal tortures, and summary executions were the order
of the day, Makhmalbaf not only supported their policy of terror and
torture, but also offered his film making expertise to launch an assault
For his movie, Boycott, he was allowed inside one of Iran's most
dreadful prisons. There, amid daily atrocities of torture and
interrogation, he shot his story using actual leftist political prisoners
who were coerced into playing roles for Makhmalbaf's feature film. The
story of this film depicted leftist activists as rigid Stalinist villains,
worthy of contempt and scorn. Ironically, Makhmalbaf and company forced
these political prisoners into such self-denigrating roles as part of a
=93corrective exercise.=94 Tragically, not long after the completion of
this movie, a number of these young activists were executed, and their
bodies were hastily buried in unmarked graves. I have personally
identified and traced the fate of these victims, whom many of us used to
know personally. In the history of cinema, I can think of no filmmaker
who has committed so blatant an assault on helpless individuals as
Makhmalbaf has done without any shame or remorse. Nor, I can believe the
indifference that the world has demonstrated with regard to his actions.
Appallingly, one can readily purchase this film, a product of forced labor
and torture, on videocassette via Internet!
However, in the late 1980s, Makhmalbaf made a face-about in his political
attitude, and became an advocate of tolerance and open society. For this,
his loyalist friends, whom he had faithfully served during their attempt
to consolidate power in Iran, did not spare him. He was threatened and
attacked by his ex-associates in the loyalist camp. This dramatic change
happened when the fundamentalist regime's failure in maintaining popular
legitimacy was becoming clear to everyone, and specially to many members
of their own rank. Despite these intimidations, he has had no problem
massively producing, and internationally screening a chain of feature
films, unparalleled in quantity and reach, in the history of Iranian
cinema. In a country, wherein dissident intellectuals are not allowed to
publish something as benign as an encyclopedia of folklore (i.e. Ahmad
Shamloo, our national poet), Makhmalbaf and his family (his daughter and
sister-in-law) maintain a profile of consistent production and
international presence that makes any conscientious observer wonder.
Although I condemn any intimidation that he has suffered in the hands of
his ex-associates, I detest his obvious lack of integrity that he has
skillfully practiced so far.
In today's Iran, "the old is dying and the new cannot be born."
Therefore, "there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms." In ways
similar to a morbid symptom, Makhmalbaf and the present brand of henchmen
intellectuals tend to express real social afflictions as far as they can
manage to compromise its essence and truth. This is what you may have
sensed (but left unexplained) as you warned the readers about the
political content of Makhmalbaf's article. In fact, his article is
saturated with the uncritical discourse of modernization and economic
development that has malaised the aspirations of the people of the region.
His pronouncements against the vices of the segmentary society (what he
calls tribal society) reflect his deliberate and well disguised attacks on
ethnicity and locality. What he has reproached as tribalism has to be
renamed as ethnic and local forms of social life. Where he preaches the
Gospel of national unity, it must be read as the eradication of ethnic
diversity by an administered, homogenizing system. When he boasts of the
absence of ethnic predilection among Iranian voters, he has to be reminded
of the gruesome massacres of Iranian Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Turkmans, and
Balooches, by the fundamentalist regime from 1979 on-ward.
In the "House of Pain" that Makhmalbaf and his associates have built for
themselves and us a generation of Iranian political activists walked
proudly to their death, as Makhmalbaf cheered on their bloody purge. To
his disappointment, a great number of surviving activists are still
resisting the fundamentalist rule, while Makhmalbaf is practicing the
international fine art of mendacity and deceit. In fact, his humanity has
failed repeatedly, and his abysmal failures by no means stop with militant
activists. When young Iranian soldiers in Iran-Iraq war were openly named
as one-time-use soldiers (a literal and exact translation) by the
fundamentalist Defense Minister, and were sent as human waves to the
front, Makhmalbaf endorsed the "great war effort to save Islam".
The sorrow of those days still haunts many of us. Many suffer a silent,
consuming agony, as Makhmalbaf's voice is heard everywhere. =46rom
prestigious international film festivals to the recent example in the
Monthly Review, Makhmalbaf reaches an ever-growing audience, as his
victims lie voiceless, in unmarked graves, and as his survivors are too
hopeless to speak of their terrible tragedy. The whole world celebrates
his talent, while the ghastly story of his real talent remains completely
No one can deny that Makhmalbaf's article reflects a rather intimate
picture of the situation in Afghanistan. But, is this sufficient to
include his text in the Monthly Review? No one denies that Makhmalbaf is
a celebrated artist, and so does Leni Riefenstahl. Are you considering
printing her works, too? No one denies that Makhmalbaf has occasionally
said something worthy of hearing, and so did Ernst Junger. Are you about
to give him coverage, too?
You suggest that Makhmalbaf's article has to be read "as a deeply moral
and humanitarian account of the tragic circumstances of the Afghan people
and the callousness of the West." It is a bitter irony that while you set
out to remedy one example of callousness; you end up committing another
one, yourself. For most part, this reveals a lack of awareness that stems
from a lack of solidarity with the plight of the Left in non-western
societies. Although European fascism and Islamic fundamentalism are
diametrically different in content, the rise of fundamentalism for us has
been as socially significant as the rise of fascism for European Left.
How painful for you, would that be to see a prestigious leftist journal
publish the work of the Revisionist Historians of the Third Reich, in an
uncritical manner? Would you not rise with a cry of indignation and moral
outrage? Would you not rush to defend the victims and to stand with the
evidence? Would you not break in sorrow and rage remembering the final
hopeless hours of Walter Benjamin and Marc Bloch? I believe that thus
doing is the only decent and just choice.
I am aware that many members of Iranian left, today, applaud Makhmalbaf as
a true convert. Perhaps, such counsel has influenced your choice, too.
However, not so much unlike those among your rank who look to Carl Schmitt
for inspiration, these people are invariably of the habit of getting lost
in their own mystifications. Likewise, I have no doubt that there are
people among us, who readily accept Makhmalbaf as a born-again social
democrat, and to celebrate him as the newly baptized child of political
pluralism. Ironically, those whose political imagination is raptured by
these new converts of "open and civil society," are promoting their new
masters with complete secrecy about their past, lest people know what they
are buying into!
Yet, if you are truly after "imparting a message desperately needed in our
times," please consider making this note available to all your readers, in
its entirety. Perhaps, there is no better opportune time for us to be
heard. Perhaps, it is time to make the voiceless speak. Perhaps it is
time to strip human suffering of its murky obscurity. Until, we decide to
Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark,
And has the nature of eternity
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