DIR/WRI: Mohammad Rasoulof
Provocative, brave and compelling, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is an engrossing drama as remarkable for its critique of Iranian government oppression as its production despite it.
Director Mohammad Rasoulof shot the film without official permission. It’s not the first time. The Iranian authorities previously banned him from making films for 20 years and restricted his movements outside the country because he filmed without a permit. The cast and crew remain anonymous because of the film’s risky political material. Rasoulof deserves praise for his courageous defiance in telling a story inspired by true events.
His narrative follows a day in the life of Khosrow and Morteza, two low-level operatives carrying out thuggish tasks for unsavoury officials. The title quotes The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, who burnt a draft of his masterpiece to free his mind from the troubles visited upon him by the literary bureaucracy in Soviet Russia. In Rasoulof’s film, the Iranian authorities wish to suppress the publication of a book that details a failed government plot to eliminate 22 dissident writers and intellectuals in a staged bus crash. They engage in torture, kidnapping and murder. The subject matter seems like the stuff of a heavy-handed action thriller, but Rasoulof’s restrained direction makes for a slow-moving but gripping and fully-rounded drama.
Khosrow, a working-class man, anxiously keeps in touch with his wife throughout the day. She has brought their son to hospital. He needs the money from his nefarious work to support his family and make the connections needed to get ahead and get his son the attention he requires. Khosrow fears God’s retribution visited on his family. Morteza assures Khosrow that their work complies with sharia, perverting the state religion of the Islamic Republic.
Rasoulof exposes how oppression corrupts people in different ways. A former dissident writer now works for the state and ruthlessly seeks to advance his career. He has no qualms about killing his former friends, authors and intellectuals who struggle under constant surveillance, questioning the purpose and significance of their efforts.
Bleak wintry scenes set in snowy landscapes outside Tehran complement Rasoulof’s chilling condemnation of Iranian censorship while demonstrating his visual flair. He frequently positions his camera outside the rooms in which the action takes place, heightening the sense of surveillance and almost making the audience complicit in what happens.
An angry but assured film, Manuscripts Don’t Burn featured at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Un Certain Regard section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning the FIPRESCI prize. His previous film, Goodbye, premiered at the French resort in 2011 in the same section, and won him a prize for direction. Departing from the oblique allegorical style of his earlier films, he makes an important and impressive attack on state corruption, violence and censorship in contemporary Iran.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn is released 12th September 2014