In Conversation with Mohsen Makhmalbaf the director of the film "The President"
What was the inspiration for telling this story?
The script for The President was written and re-written several times, and the story went through several incarnations. But the initial spark came about 8 years ago in Afghanistan, as I overlooked the city of Kabul from the rubble of the destroyed Darul Aman Palace. At that time a thought suddenly entered my mind: What if, when a president was embracing their child and looking out their big palace window over “their” city, the President suddenly decided to entertain his child through a demonstration of absolute power: by turning all the lights, in the entire city, on and off, just for fun? And what if those lights that were shut off during the game suddenly did not turn back on? What happens then? So this imaginary scenario was the initial spark that later led to the story of The President.
Later on, in the heat of the Arab spring, I rewrote the script for the President. I learned a lot by following the news of the different revolutions taking place at the time. I witnessed how these dictators could singlehandedly create national tragedies, which resulted in their overthrow and a revolution. And I also saw how the violence of those revolutions created further new tragedies, and many times led to new forms of dictatorship, violence and tyranny.
Why did you decide that the setting for The President should be a fictional country?
The film echoes events that have taken place in many countries in the past, and are unfortunately likely to take place again in the future. There are some common threads that exist, no matter where the events take place. First there is a dictator, who behaves with impunity and oppresses the people of the country. This eventually leads to the collapse of the dictatorial regime. Then, once the regime has fallen, there is further violence involved during the revolution. And here again there are certain common consequences stemming from this revolutionary violence.
My goal was to craft a portrait of all of these elements into one single story: a story that could take place anywhere. And what I have also tried to do with this film is provide a dual insight into these kinds of hardships and tragedies. On the one hand the tragedy imposed on the people by those behind the dictatorships. And then on the other side, for those behind the violent revolutions, I wanted to show the blood and new tragedy that can occur as a result of the revolution.
There is furthermore a personal element to this choice, because after a decade of living in different countries, my heart no longer beats for only one country. Hearing tragic news from Syria affects me just as much as hearing of the events and tragedies that are taking place in Libya, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Or any other place in this world.
Are these kinds of revolutions ‘destined’ to devolve into chaos and violence?
Dictators do not give up their power easily and without a fight. And people in search of democracy will unwillingly resort to violence to reach their goal. But soon after the moment of victory, they are often very soon faced with a new tragedy, caused by those same violent acts that represented a victory just a little while earlier.
So in a sense the violence that existed before the revolution is carried over even afterwards, in one way or another. And unfortunately this represents an ongoing cycle that many people and countries find themselves trapped in and unable to escape.
There can unfortunately be no end to this cycle, unless mankind is able to build a new and better culture to deal with this situation.
What I hope is that making this film can be a small step and a hope for building this new culture.
What do the dual perspectives of your two main characters - the fallen tyrant and his innocent child – represent in the film?
Dachi, the president’s five-year-old innocent grandson, can be seen as the innocence embedded in the tyrannical president, who is nevertheless still a human being. Along with all the bad things he has done, we cannot forget that he was himself an innocent kid, one day long ago. This balance and duality was essential for allowing the film the possibility to suggest a nonviolent resolution.
What also accompanies this is the idea of regret. As the grandson witnesses one tragedy after another, he constantly questions his grandfather about the horrors he is seeing. Answering these questions is something that is shameful for the president, given his own responsibility. But facing his grandson’s questions is also what brings the president back to his own humanity.
You shot THE PRESIDENT in Georgia - adding to the list of many countries where you have made movies. (Afghanistan, India, Israel, Tajikistan...) What has led you to make your films in such a diversity of different settings?
I have now directed films in ten different countries. In making the films, each time I would spend at least a couple of months living in each place. As a result I have become deeply convinced that human beings are the same everywhere, and that they all share very similar agonies and dreams. In our globalised world, different cultures are interacting more than in the past, and in a sense I think this brings them closer to each other. This is another reason why the same story I am telling in The President could just as well happen in many other countries, and we wouldn’t need to change the story very much.
You have a unique working relationship with your family - your wife as well as your three children are all directors - and you work all together on many of the Makhmalbaf projects. How did this method of close collaboration develop and what does it contribute to the filmmaking process?
When I make films, my family is there to help, learn and share in the experience. In the case of this film, my wife Marziyeh helped me write the script. Hana, my younger daughter, edited the film and was my 1st AD. Hana was also in charge of training Dachi, who plays the young grandson in the film, for the role and controlling his performance during the film. It was Dachi’s first time acting, and in my mind the result of their work together is masterful.
Maysam, my son, was present all the way through and helped me in all aspects of bringing the project to fruition. It was Maysam who started producing the film two years ago, and he was also my assistant on the set, as well as handling the sound design for the film.
When any of them makes a film however, I am not allowed on the set! They want to go their own way and take their own directions in terms of cinema. So even if they all gained experience working on my projects, their films are neither similar to mine nor to each other’s. Compare for instance “The Blackboards” and “At Five in the Afternoon” by Samira with “The Day I became A woman” or “Stray Dogs” by Marziyeh, or even “Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame” or “Green Days” by Hana.
Would you like to touch on your current relationship with Iran or the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
When I lived in Iran, my films were banned or faced with serious censorship. In protest to this censorship I finally decided to leave the country. And if I were to return to Iran today - if they didn’t kill me - they would put me in prison for life. I have been out of the country for ten years now, and since then the Iranian regime has tried to assassinate me a couple of times. Twice in Afghanistan and twice in France.
Your work, as many events we know from your biography, look like tiles of a single necessity, to fight against any form of dictatorship and coercion. You often authored stories on people who were denied freedom. In this movie, though, you concentrate on those who had the power to decide upon the freedom of others. What kind of man is the President?
As a child, everyone is born the same - equal. But soon a very few of them will gain huge powers and begin to consider themselves as Gods. And start to make decisions for other people’s lives and destinies.
The President in the film is a symbolic representation of one of these “gods” – who ends up losing all of his power – and suddenly finds himself trapped in the same hell he had created for the others.
This is quite a rare experience that very few people have come across in their lives. The experience of being as a God, and then suddenly becoming powerless and being an ordinary person the next day. Or living a life in a place that has been made to be like paradise, and then after a coup d'état or a revolution finding oneself in the hellish situation in which the ordinary poor people exist everyday. Apart from a few people who have experienced this in their own lives, for the most part this experience is only possible to represent in literature and cinema.
In his escape, the President has a five-year-old with him, his grandchild. Why this choice? How is working with a child actor?
The President’s five-year-old innocent grandson can be seen as the innocence embedded in the tyrannical president himself, who nevertheless is still a human being. Along with all the bad things he has done, we cannot forget that he was himself an innocent kid, one day long ago.
What also accompanies this is the idea of regret. As the grandson witnesses one tragedy after another, he constantly questions his grandfather about the horrors he is seeing. Answering these questions is something that is shameful for the president, given his responsibility. But faing his grandson’s questions is also what brings the president back to his own humanity.
To work with children in general, and in particular for a role like this, is very difficult. It requires a lot of patience. In fact a child is not “at your disposal” in the way a professional actor is. It is instead you who have to be very flexible and deal with their emotions and moods. To find the right person for this challenging role we searched extensively, and managed to find a very good talent. Then he was trained intensively over a period of two month to act in this role.
"The journey is never over. Only travellers come to an end. But even then they can stay in memories, in recollections, in stories", a verse by José Saramago. What does travel/journey mean to you as a narrator and as a man?
The journey for me is like the human life, with all its various stories.
But in the film The President the journey represents an opportunity for an ex-president to discover the gap between different social classes and lifestyles. As well as the gap between life in the city and in the villages, under his oppression and mismanagement.
It is also an opportunity for him to meet people from different social groups. The journey of an ex-god, who has lost his power, to find once again his pure human soul which he had long forgotten.
Your film opens Orizzonti, the section of new aesthetic and expressive trends in cinema. In your opinion what direction is cinema moving towards, given the new technological and digital means? In what, or in whom, do you see new trends in cinema?
Digital revolution took cinema out of the hands of few experts and made it available to all the population. This has had both its pros and cons. The good thing about it is that, there are no more filmmakers who can say they did not make film as a result of lacking facilities. Since in today’s world anyone can make film by using their mobile phones. Just as we have never heard a poet saying they did not write any poems for lack of pen and paper.
The problem is that many people who do not have anything particular to say or lack an artistic vision can have a camera in their hand and shoot. This has created a lot of noise, and made it harder for film loving audiences to find the right things to watch.
Cinema for me is the thing that provides what might be lacking in our world. If the problem of the human being is hunger, cinema is the smell of fresh bread. If mankind is suffering from dictatorship, cinema can be the education teaching us how to reach freedom. If people are suffering from war in our world, cinema can be a message of peace. And if people are feeling lonely, cinema can be that missing friendship and love. Cinema is creativity in a world in which consumption and habits have made us similar. In a world that is being distorted by its politicians, cinema is recreation of the world, through the eyes and hands of poets.