Part of the Book: Salam Cinema (Films of Makhmalbaf Family)
Written by: KIM Ji-Seok
The Makhmalbaf Family : Opening New Doors
I had the great pleasure of meeting Mohsen makhmalbaf in person at the 18th Fajr International Film Festival in February of this year. After having lunch together, we watched the rushes of his wife Marziyeh Meshkini’s debut, The Day I Became a Woman. Then his son Maysam came in with a bundle of cash for his father. After out talk was over, Mohsen personally drove me to my hotel, stopping at a local florist on the way to buy me a small potted plant as a gift. His kindness conjured up the same feelings as I had during the last scene of A Moment of Innocence. But what made an even stronger impression was the sight of Mohsen driving off for Kish Island, where Marziyeh was shooting her next project. You see, the money Maysam gave him was her budget and he was going all the way to Kish Island to deliver it in person.
Filmmaking in the makhmalbaf family has always been like this. By Korean standards, their budgets are microscopically small. Furthermore, they sell their house and car to supplement the funds they raise from the banks and overseas. Once the completed film screens, they buy back the house and the car with the box-office revenues and then repeat the same process all over again for the next project.
These production methods can be related to Iran’s cultural climate and social conditions. As Mohsen reveals in his article, “Makhmalbaf Productions.” He began working this way in 1995, with A Moment of Innocence. Realizing that A Moment of Innocence was going to be banned, the family had an emergency meeting. The consensus was that they should abandon the release rather than allow the film to be censored. That meant selling their house to pay back the financiers, but they accepted the sacrifice gladly. Since then, Mohsen has been able to keep his work and his family has got used to this unique method of financing films. In fact, Mohsen’s international reputation is more than adequate to attract the necessary funds for his projects from overseas investors. However, he holds to the principle that any financing which may affect his artistic integrity will be rejected regardless of the amount. Surprisingly perhaps, his entire family is one hundred percent behind him on this point.
Because it is organically tied to his life experiences and his ideas about the cinema, most people may find the makhmalbaf family’s unique production method hard to imagine. Mohsen defies traditional education and social values, believing that life itself is the best and most valuable form of education and art. As a result, his daughters Samira and Hana have forgone formal education in favor of learning about life and filmmaking while living at home. Mohsen also believes filmmaking should never be a privileged practice for an elite person or group. A film represents a person’s life. And so everyone should be able to become the center of his or her own filmmaking process. He has put this belief into practice with his own family members. Enabling them all become key figures in the filmmaking process.
Makhmalbaf continues to develop these ideas about cinema, making his recent films in collaboration with ordinary people. Passers by have bit parts in his films as themselves in their everyday lives, sometimes offering guidance in the process. This is Mohsen’s sincere attempt to refine his filmmaking by combining the stories from these ‘common fork’ with the ones he is trying to tell. His 1995 work Salaam Cinema is the prime example of such a work. It is a documentary on the people who respond to a call for a general audition and by affectionately presenting their love for the cinema, Mohsen succeeds in revealing his self-reflective nature as their kind observer. For example, he offers his director’s seat to tow young girls who came for the audition and has them assume his role. This scene is a study of his authority and simultaneously a testimony to ordinary people’s love of and yearning for the cinema.
Nevertheless, Mohsen does not push his unique directing method on the rest of the family. Instead, he pays keen attention to what they have to say and tries to understand their individual perspectives. That is why each film from the makhmalbaf family members has its own distinctive characteristics. Mohsen’s attitude was apparent at this year’s Singapore international Film Festival in March; attending as a jury member with his youngest daughter Hana by his side, he asked this 11 year-old for her opinions and took them very seriously. Asked later it Hana could fully comprehend without being able to read English subtitles, Mohsen replied that precisely because of this she could give him an insight into the visual aspect of the films. The family treasures the opinions of each member and their role in the filmmaking process regardless of their age. Having started her film studies later than her children, Marziyeh happily began her film career as Samira’s assistant. For the Makhmalbaf family, filmmaking is also a way of recognizing each other as independent film professionals.
Another reason for the differences between the family members’ films has to do with Mohsen’s convictions about ‘truth.’ He is heavily influenced by the 13 th century Persian poet Rumi’s idea that truth can be seen from different angles. Just as the images from broken mirrors may reflect a picture in fragments. That is why his films display continuous changes in style and the family’s films are diverse in both style and subject matter. For Mohsen, there is more than one door to truth and he always leaves the doors open. Still, in the end, there are tow things he wants to find the truth about; humanity and love. His films can be poetic, realist or experimental, but these two main subjects never change. In his A Moment of Innocence, he admits his earlier idea of “changing the world through violence” was flawed. His family’s films also emphasize humanity and love. Samira’s works have been the stories of disabled people neglected by society emphasize humanity and love. Samira’s works have been the stories of disabled people neglected by society (The Apple) and Kurds who live in constant fear as a minority (Blackboards), while Marziyeh’s work deals with the oppression of women in Islamic society (The Day I Became a Woman.)
Overall, the Makhmalbaf family approach to ‘filmmaking for the masses’ is a unique and unprecedented cinematic challenge. This family makes the filmmaking process a part of their everyday life, seeking reality and learning about the world through it. They believe their filmmaking process should not be taken as either an individual or group private practice, but rather as filmmaking for everyone with ‘humanity’ and ‘love’ as its central motives. This ideology and lifestyle has produced outstanding results, both in the family’s production style and in their artistic achievements. They also provide us with new opportunities to think about our own true values.
The Makhmalbaf Family: Opening New Doors
Part of the Book: Salam Cinema (Films of Makhmalbaf Family)