DIR: Mohsen Makhmalbaf • WRI: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marziyeh Meshkiny • PRO: Maysam Makhmalbaf, Mike Downey, Vladimer Katcharava, Sam Taylor • DOP: Konstantine-Mindia Esadze • ED: Hana Makhmalbaf, Marziyeh Meshkiny • MUS: Guja Burduli, Tajdar Junaid, Daler Nazarov, Kvicha Maglakelidze • CAST: Misha Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili, Guja Burduli, Ia Sukhitashvili, Zura Begalishvili
Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker and human rights activist Mosen Makhmalbaf’s pioneering thirty-two year career has produced some of the most influential yet controversial films to emerge out of the New Iranian cinema, garnering global critical approbation and innumerable international awards. Predominantly delineating a socio-political commentary on the individual role within Iranian culture as it shifts through political and religious modifications, Makhmalbaf’s revolutionary and didactic films and documentary-style features, in defiance of stringent censorship laws, have provoked retaliation in the form of murder plots, prison spells and bomb attacks, enforcing a self-imposed exile to Britain, where the director has been vociferously critical of the Islamic Republic’s highly factionalised, autocratic regime and remains under continuous threat from the present Iranian government.
Inspired by a visit to the Darul Aman Palace in Kabul, the concept for The President emerged from the traumatic ramifications of the pro-democratic Arab Spring risings of late 2010. Makhmalbaf’s twenty-ninth film follows the relationship between a despotic dictator and his naïve grandson, set to inherit the philosophies of an autocratic regime, as they attempt to flee their homeland following a coup d’etat. Set in a fictional country and employing similar themes to Makhmalbaf’s surreal and controversial film, The Gardener (2012), which depicted a father and son’s trip to Israel to assimilate the Baha’I faith and presented two opposing views on religion, The President, similarly delineates two narrative perspectives, that of an imperious oppressor and those of his perceived impotent subjects. As the President’s family flee the country in the wake of military opposition, the royal fugitives are forced to pose as street musicians in an attempt to get to the border, encountering many of the consequences of a destroyed humanity enforced by the sovereign’s barbaric regime.
While the plot unfolds in medias res, the potency of The President lies not through a graphic depiction of events leading to civil war but rather, as is customary with Makhmalbaf and Iranian cinema, through a symbolic, poetic realism that converges art, modernity and socio-political analysis. The physical act of unrest becomes a backdrop to the psychological act of exploring profound human interpersonal relationships engulfed in chaotic circumstances that have developed as a result of brutality, subjugation and fear, creating a morally hopeful narrative amidst the palpable suffering of a nation on the brink of absolute annihilation. Casting a direct gaze on the internal wrangling between religious dictatorships and extreme opposition in Middle Eastern nations, the film poses philosophical questions about the nature of oppression, punishment and revenge with profound sympathy and lack of judgment.
By predominantly dispensing with the familiar iconography of war and focusing on the individual narratives of war, Makhmalbaf seeks to humanise the construction of monstrosity aligned with dictatorships while subtly, yet highly emotively, portraying its consequences on the individual within a conflicted nation. Denying access to the visual actualities of war and isolating the individual cost on both perpetrator and victim, the film presents a keenly balanced perspective on despotism and its repercussions, challenging the conventional construction of the tyrant ubiquitous in cinema, its sympathy placing the viewer in a predicament. Makhmalbaf unveils a tyrannical face that is not often visible while also erasing the possibility of oversentimental engagement with autocratic iniquity through a pedagogical insight into the political, theological and cultural factors that motivate such tyrannical rule.
Makhmalbaf’s allegorical narrative is bolstered by a visual mastery and magnetism that captures the futility, hopelessness and contradictions of torn nations as a mass exodus of displaced refugees wander in vain through vast, bucolic landscapes, dispelled from their homeland. The gleaming opulence of the sovereignty sits in complete opposition to the spiritless desperation of inhumane subjugation yet there sits a deep-rooted beauty in the integrity of the human spirit that beguiles the fallen sovereign in spite of the call to vengeance that would align him with his persecuted victims. Makhmalbaf refrains from idealising a portrait of human anxiety but rather delineates the interchangeability between administering oppression and seeking opportunistic revenge, situating both pacifism and violence as an inherent part of the human condition and the ease with which humanity can oscillate from one to the other, for one’s own end, regardless of socio-political circumstances.
While The President is infused with the thought-provoking symbolism and socio-political ideology that is indicative of the eclecticism and reflexivity of the New Iranian cinema and which Makhmalbaf, along with directors such as Beiza’I, Kiarostami, Daryush and Bani-Etemad, repositioned Iranian cinema through a new subversive way of looking inward, there is a sense that much of the director’s work, free from the prying constraints of Islamic censorship, has lost a certain socio-political potency. The westernisation and freedom pervading the film’s narrative transcend the limitations imposed by Iranian censorship laws and, at times, loses some of the symbolic weight previously explored in films such as The Peddler, Gabbeh and Moment of Innocence, pushing its socio-political matter in the face of great restriction. While the film remains a formidable fable that expresses the hopes and anxieties of a nation and views Islamic oppression through an alternative, individual gaze, it is difficult to refrain from considering the poetic and intellectual possibilities The President could have experimentally explored, had Makhmalbaf to consider the same restrictions that informed his most significant post-revolutionary work.