Director Faces the Fire with ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’

By Matthew Little, Epoch Times
September 25, 2013 8:46 pm Last Updated: September 25, 2013 8:53 pm

TORONTO—Mohammad Rasoulof didn’t get a warm welcome from the Iranian government when he returned after showing his latest film at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival.

Instead, he had his passport taken away and was told to report for a meeting last week. Since then, his New York publicist hasn’t spoken with him.

He wasn’t arrested though, which is really good news.

The Epoch Times spoke with Rasoulof while he was in Toronto showing his film.

The upbeat jazz music in the TIFF Lightbox lounge made an odd contrast to the director’s recounting of the tensions of making “Manuscripts Don’t Burn.”

“When you are making such a film, there is a constant internal war happening,” Rasoulof said.

“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” tells the tale of three dissident intellectuals who survived an assassination attempt decades before. That attempt, which involved crashing a bus of 21 writers, journalists, and dissident thinkers, is a historical fact. So is a series of murders over several years that ended the lives of many prominent dissidents.

The danger facing Rasoulof and those who participated in “Manuscripts” strikes home when the film ends and instead of credits there is one line.

It explains that due to censorship in Iran, the names of the cast and crew of the film cannot be publicized.

It is a situation of art becoming a reality for those who could not be listed. In portraying dissident voices persecuted by their government, they become what they portray. 

Even unnamed, they still face danger, notes the director. 

“When you make a film, you accept responsibility for those people you are making a film with—people who are often your friends,” he said. 

“You ask yourself constantly, ‘Is it worth it that I endanger these people because of a film?’”

Rasoulof has been out on bail but is facing a one-year sentence in Iran for filming without a permit while making a previous film. That sentence, which was originally six years, stems from charges that he acted against national security and carried out propaganda against the regime. 

None of his films have screened in his home country. Meanwhile, “Manuscripts” won acclaim at Cannes and was screened several times during its run at TIFF.

The Grip of Censorship

Like the real-life events his latest film draws on, censorship in Iran is an inescapable reality for Rasoulof, and his willingness to face it directly could have serious consequences.

The three dissidents the film follows are in the final years of their lives. They struggle as the grip of censorship continues to suffocate them and are circled by thugs working for the censorship office.

For Rasoulof, it was a difficult subject to portray, and he drew on his own experience dealing with Iranian security and intelligence forces—a topic he does not like to discuss. 

It takes no small amount of courage to film in Tehran without a permit while on bail for doing the same before—this time making a film that is even more incendiary than its predecessor. 

Rasoulof does not enjoy the fact that his films make his government angry.

“But these are issues that are fascinating to me and that I want to make a film about,” he said.

“I don’t want to overthrow any government. I just want to talk about my issues and raise awareness with my words. This is what makes cinema into a serious art for me. If you take this away from me, I will never make a film. It is a very difficult and fatiguing work.”

As a filmmaker, if you don’t have subject matter you love, you can’t make a film, he said. It is an exhausting tension to live with—the wish to create, and the burden of honesty that compels it.

“I often think that my film is like a cry in the middle of the desert.”

But he knows he is not alone and that in other countries, such as China, similar oppressions play out. He points to dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as an example that tells him others share similar tribulations.

“There are these things that tell you that whenever you cry out, there are these echoes that come to you from somewhere else.”

Rasoulof could avoid the threat of jail and censorship and make his life much easier by simply not returning to Iran, or by making films about other things. Neither is an option for him. He said he will neither willingly exile himself nor ignore his homeland. 

His 2011 film “Goodbye” tells the tale of a lawyer trying to escape Iran after her license is revoked by the government. 

Rasoulof won best director honours in the Un Certain Regard section of 2011 Cannes Film Festival for the film. “Manuscripts” won the International Federation of Film Critics award at Cannes earlier this year.

But while “Manuscripts” doesn’t have a happy Hollywood ending, it does have a message: for every crime there is a witness, and a debt that could be passed down from father to son. 

“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” is a warning perhaps for those in power in Iran, and a reminder to victims that justice is inevitable.