"understanding Mohsen Makhmalbaf"
The first Mohsen Makhmalbaf film I saw was 'A Moment of Innocence' and it has stayed with me till today as my favorite film and Mohsen Makhmalbaf has become the film maker I admire most. Finally in July 2004 I got an opportunity to meet and talk to him and his family when they were in Delhi to present the works of Makhmalbaf Family for the Cinefan Film Festival. This is a compilation of many thoughts Mohsen Makhmalbaf shared in our conversation about his journey from an activist to a film maker, about his distinctive film making style, about media, education, politics and his going back from a film maker to activist which is a journey he takes very often. Makhmalbaf talks:
1. Activist to Filmmaker:
I was born to parents who were married only for six days. I was created in those six days and then my father left my mother. But they both were fighting over my custody. My father was trying to kidnap me from my mother, so my mother kept me as a virtual prisoner in the house for almost one and a half years. But the positive side to it was my aunt decided to take up the task of educating me; she would borrow all kinds of books from the neighbors for me. So at a very young age, I got to read a lot of literature, fiction, religious books etc., Looking back, I think that is the reason why I became a writer later on; I have written about 30 books till today. I didn't go to university or I didn't even finish my high school because of the bad financial situation at home. Instead I started working since the age of 12. I did almost 13 different jobs from working in the bazaar, in magazines and so on.
round that time, I got interested in politics and became a political activist after seeing so much of life and conditions in my country. Influenced by the ideals of Che Guevara, my friends and I wanted to change the system and bring in the revolution. In one such activity, We decided to get the hang of a gun so we attack a police man and while disarming him, I ended up stabbing him and I was shot twice in the back by him. Luckily the injury was not fatal. But I ended up in jail. Later on I made 'A Moment of Innocence' which is based on this incident and my reflections on the same at a later age. I was 17 when I went to jail. I was imprisoned for about 5 years and I spent those years thinking about many issues concerning my society and the way in which we where trying to change the system. Slowly I realised that with all due respects to Che Guevara, I found Gandhi a bigger person and non violence seemed a better way to bring about the change I was seeking in my society.
When I came out of the prison I changed my position from political to cultural. I believed and still believe that the problems of Iranian society are not political and can't be solved by a change in government or a change in policy. The problems are cultural and can only be solved by changing something in peoples' minds, in their way of thinking. The Iranian society believes there is only one way of life, one language, one power and one truth. This belief leads to fascism. Then came the revolution and many of my friends who were in prison with me became Presidents and Prime ministers.So when I came out of prison I started writing stories, novels, articles and later on started making films. I was 23 when Samira was born and I stayed focused on my work in the cultural area.
2. Making mirrors not windows:
I have made 16 feature films and 6 short films. Apart from their social and cultural impact, it helped to develop a new style of cinema in Iran. With my work and the work done by other good Iranian film makers we could create a new version of Iranian cinema, which is accepted and appreciated all over the world today. The reason for this is because we found our own way of expression which is very different from Hollywood and Bollywood. Hollywood for me is like a factory, an industry where most of the films are same in content and style. There are very few new things happening in Hollywood cinema; for them it is business not art and nothing to do with the culture of their society. We tried to be more close to the real Iranian culture; for me our kind of cinema is something like a 'mirror'. A mirror that we hold in front of the soul of people, so that they can look at themselves. When you look at yourself in the mirror you may want to change something in yourself. Or one can check the truth of what one sees in this mirror. Is it really my self or is it the image I had about myself? And if you find that something is missing you can change yourself.
To me Satyajit Ray is a mirror in Indian cinema. He put a mirror in front of the soul of India in the Trilogy, but in Bollywood I can't find the real Indian soul. Same with Hollywood. If you travel inside of USA you will see a very different kind of life, but in their cinema most of the time people are killing each other. We are sitting here talking and life goes on around us and outside, but when you see a Bollywood cinema most of the time people are dancing and fighting. It has nothing to do with the real life, this is not a mirror in front of people. Maybe Hollywood and Bollywood are something like a 'window', a window for people to find another world to merely enjoy and a business for the people who make them. Please India; Stop Bollywood!
For me and my family, film making is a cultural, political and humanist activity. It is not a business. Last year Samira was in India and she won a prize at IFFI and she got 12,000 dollars. She didn't want to take that money with her. The poor children of India have more need for that money than Samira so she donated that money in India. An artist doesn't need lots of money or fame; rather an artist needs a heart, feelings and honesty.
3. Creating fiction from reality:
Our way of film making is very open in nature. Many times we work without a complete script. When you have a complete script it means you have a question and an answer. But if you have only an outline it is something like finding the answer for your question. And we let the wind blow into our script, then you see the reality coming in by itself in the script. Even when we choose our actors, we don't go around looking for someone we created sitting in our house. We find characters and allow them to bring in their life and their experiences into the film. Some times it is their own dialogues and reactions that they use in the film. This is to get something that is as close to reality, which is very integral to the kind of work we do. Many times the main character in our films doesn't even know the story till we finish shooting the film. They discover the story day by day and they grow along with the story. If they know everything from the beginning their performance becomes artificial.
And our camera work too is very close to reality. It is like looking through eyes, many people mistake our films for documentaries. But no! Every thing is planned and created, but created from the reality around us. So maybe our films are something between documentary and fiction. Like the Italian Neo Realist films which are very close to the day to day life. Forget about sets, make up, lighting and all the things the industry imposes upon us to use. This is one kind of cinema, our kind of cinema, but not the only kind or the manifesto of cinema. There should be all kinds, it is not good for the world if there is only one kind of cinema and film festivals are the democratic place to see different views on cinema.
4. Teaching to believe in oneself:
Samira was in school and she was frustrated by the education they give in Iranian schools. Every thing is religion, language is religion, geography is religion, science is religion, mathematics is religion and so on. Samira was sick of that kind of education and a few times she even tried to kill herself. I got scared and asked her to quit studies and she told me that she wanted to make films. That is the time I approached Iranian Government with the proposal to start a film school which could provide film education for 1000 children but the Government refused my proposal. So we started a small private film school at home.
We called it the Makhmalbaf Film House and there is a little story behind the name. This was the time when I had finished my film 'A Moment of Innocence' and the Government demanded a lots of cuts in the film if we wanted to show the film in theaters. Unfortunately my producer was willing to accept those cuts because he had invested lots of money in the film. But I was not willing to accept. I told him that I will give him the money and buy the film from him. So I called my wife Marziyeh, Samira, Mysam and Hana and told them - we have two ways before us. One - keep the film and sell the house. Second - keep the house and give up the film for censorship. Every one voted for keeping the film so we sold our house and used that money to get the film back. We kept just a name instead of the house -Makhmalbaf Film House and there was no physical space, only the name. Most of the students were from family. My wife, Samira, Maysam, Hana and few friends. Our school was not a conventional film school. People learnt cooking, swimming, traveling and all kinds of things apart from film making. In the true sense I have given them only one thing - which is the ability to believe in themselves. In conventional education we kill the self confidence in children, because we keep on repeating and repeating every thing that someone has found before us. Why we are in this world if we have to follow things which have been found before? I believe If you can have some kind of an education which will teach you to believe in yourself, then miracles will happen.
5. Staying rooted in the storm:
I don't make films to give people a message nor even to show them reality. I want to show different perspectives of reality because I believe there is nothing like truth. Truth is not just one-sided, there may be another side to the truth. I try to show my audience a different side of truth so they can become more democratic-minded. There is a saying in Iran, Truth is a mirror in the hands of God, broken. And all of us have got a piece of it. We think what we have in our hand is the truth. No! Every one has a piece of truth. May be you can say I prefer this piece which I have in my hand, but you can't say that is the only truth. When you think there is only one truth, there is no democracy, no conversation. To me cinema is a conversation.
In this century one of the most important issues we face will be the influence of satellite television. They let us know things which they think we should know and they don't let us see things which they don't want us to think about. They didn't want us to know about Afghanistan before September 11. After September 11 they told us to pay attention to Afghanistan. But after one year they told us to stop, now it is time for you to see Iraq, now after some time they will tell us stop, we will show you another truth. The Afghan women are under the Burkha of Islam, and we are under the Burkha of CNN and BBC. We have to cut it open and come out of it. One way to come out of the satellite influence is through pure cinema because cinema provides the other side of truth, and make us capable of thinking for ourselves without any influence of media which is in the hands of power. We have to start thinking freely for a better world.
It is not easy. The wind is too strong in these times in which we are living. It is blowing from all sides, but if we think for ourselves, if we think deeply, we will become rooted and will be able to stand on our own feet. So that no wind can take us away.
6. Filmmaker to Activist:
But while making films in the past 30 years I understood that making a film is not enough and it is not the only thing. For instance if you are making a film about poor people then you cannot forget them and move on to the next film. You will have to make an effort to change a few things for them socially and politically too. During the time of Taliban, two years before September 11, I made a secret trip to Herat City in Afghanistan. I was shocked to see more than 20,000 people dying by the road sides because of hunger and suffering. I decided to inform this situation to the world. If you see Kandahar you will know it is not merely a film. It is sharing of lots of information about a country that is forgotten. I wrote a book 'The Buddha was not Demolished in Afghanistan.' It collapsed out of Shame.' I carried copies of the book when I went to Cannes Film Festival. I gave it to lots of journalists who wanted to talk to me about film making. I gave about 300 interviews and after I finished each interview I gave them the book and told them - here is a country which has been forgotten by the world, please write about it, write about the sufferings of Afghan people. But many of the journalists didn't understand, some didn't even believe something like that can happen in this world. After 3 months, September 11 happened and suddenly there was lots of attention on Afghanistan. All satellite channels were full of Afghanistan, but most of the time it was only talk.
I used the post September11 atmosphere to change some things for the Afghan people. First I made the documentary 'Afghan Alphabet' about the Afghan refugee children in Iran who were not allowed to go to school because they don't have a visa or enough legal documents. 700,000 children couldn't go to school for the past 8 years because of the Iranian law. To me this was the same thing as Taliban rule in Afghanistan. I had continuous talks with Iranian Government for about 3 months and also the film was shown widely in Iran and rest of the world. Finally I could make the Iranian Government change the law and last year 500,000 Afghan children went to school in Iran. Same with Afghanistan. 98% of women and 80% men couldn't go to school in Afghanistan during Taliban time. So for 3 years I stopped film making and worked on something like 80 projects for Afghan children's education, setting up schools, finding teachers, etc. I used all my resources and all the money I got as awards. For me this was better than making a film.