was a dirty war Iran launched against itself. From 1988 through 1998, over
eighty writers and reformist intellectuals are now thought to have been
assassinated at the behest of high-ranking clerics and intelligence officials.
Eventually, the nebulous outlines of the conspiracy were exposed by journalists
subsequently railroaded on dubious criminal charges. Tackling the so-called Chain Murders (or events very much like them) would be a perilous course of action
for any Iranian filmmaker hoping for official sanction, but as it happens,
Mohammad Rasoulof has already been sentenced to a twenty year filmmaking ban.
Produced entirely underground, Rasoulof’s Manuscripts
Don’t Burn (trailer
a jaw-dropping feat of artistic integrity, which opens a week long engagement
at MoMA this Friday.
and Morteza are blue collar workers. They abduct, torture, and assassinate intellectuals
thought to hold counter-revolutionary ideas by their Islamist masters,
especially those looking to publish their work. The memoir of dissident writer
Kasra would be particularly incendiary because it addresses the role played by the
current intelligence minister in the attempted assassination of twenty-one public
intellectuals on their way to a writers’ conference in Armenia.
an effort to protect his manuscript, Kasra has sent copies to two of his lucky intelligentsia
friends. Unfortunately, the secret police already have this intel, so Khosrow
and Morteza are soon dispatched to torture the poet Kian and eventually fake
his suicide. It is an assignment that comes at a bad time for Khosrow. Unlike
the more mercenary Morteza, he fervently believes in the righteousness of the
state ideology. However, his wife is convinced their son’s severe health issues
are a form of divine retribution for the crimes he has committed. To make
matters worse, the apparatus of terror has been slow to make the payments he so
desperately needs for his son’s surgery.
word bold just does not do Burn justice.
Rasoulof shines a spotlight on censorship, torture, state-sponsored murder, and
religious hypocrisy, all of which look even worse than one would imagine. If he
missed a third rail, it would have to be the condition of women under the
misogynist regime, but Burn offers
more than enough to process as it is. Employing a cast and crew of expatriate
Iranians, all of whom remain uncredited for their protection, Rasoulof’s film
feels relentlessly authentic. Yet, despite the power of its indictment, Burn still functions as a taut political
one day soon we will safely know the identity of Rasoulof’s artistic
collaborators. For now, we can only give them a collective ovation, but the
fearless actor playing Kian deserves special mention. The Academy and its brethren
should review their bylaws regarding anonymous work, because his performance as
the suave, world weary poet truly merits award consideration. Likewise, the
screen thesp cast as Khosrow creates a deeply riveting portrait of guilt and
fanaticism, making it impossible to dismiss the film as mere polemics.
Like the work Jafar Panahi produced in defiance
of his own filmmaking ban, Burn is
about as independent as a film can get. It is also a masterwork from an
accomplished artist. The allusion to Mikhail Bulgakov makes it even timelier,
given Russia’s recent military adventurism with respects to its former Soviet
era captive nations. Tragically though, the title is rather ironic—manuscripts really
do burn—and so do writers. Very highly recommended, Manuscripts Don’t Burn opens this Friday (6/13) at MoMA, as part of
their ongoing ContemporAsian film series.
Labels: ContemporAsian Film Series, Iranian Cinema, Mohammad Rasoulof