Among artists who defy totalitarian regimes, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof is both magnificently and horrifically situated to convey how art can be used to confront oppression.
Since serving a one-year prison sentence in 2010 for attempting to make a film in support of the pro-reform Green movement, the 40-year-old has lived a paradoxical existence. On the one hand, he is a renowned director, the recipient of two top prizes from the Cannes Film Festival and a Hamburg fellowship that allowed him and his family to escape the country. On the other hand, he is "a man whose head is chopped off from his body," as he put it recently at the 40th Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.
"My body may have been in Hamburg for the last few years," said Rasoulof, "but my mind and heart—everything I think and want to feel—are in Iran. One thing I'm really afraid of is to be disconnected in that way for a long time. It's the most fearful prospect I can think of."
Rasoulof was in Telluride for the US premiere of his clandestinely made "Manuscripts Don't Burn," his fifth feature. It could easily land him back Tehran's notorious Evin prison if he were to return home. The film is based on the 1988-1998 Chain Murders, when a series (or chain) of more than 80 writers, translators, poets, political activists, and ordinary citizens were killed by government operatives for criticizing the Islamic Republic.
"Manuscripts Don't Burn" is Rasoulof's most realistic and directly political film so far, a significant departure from more allegorical and metaphorical movies like "Iron Island" (2005) and "The White Meadows" (2009). The story centers on a poet and novelist in Tehran who, in their quest to publish a book about one grizzly incident of the Chain Murders, are terrorized by a fellow intellectual turned state security henchman. The story is also about the working class purveyors of government terror, particularly a blank-faced man named Khosrow, whose day job as a murderer of dissident artists allows him to pay his ailing son's hospital bills.
Rasoulof explains that the character of Khosrow was inspired by an experience in prison. Rasoulof's habit is to get up every morning and drink a cool glass of water. That ritual ceased in prison. But one day, he woke and found his burning hot cell intolerable. Rasoulof rang the bell for the guard, asked for water, and was rebuked. When the next guard came on shift, he tried again. Not only did the second guard bring him a glass of water, he did so every time he arrived for work at the prison.
"I came to see that those working as the prison guards and executioners in this system are human, too," Rasoulof said. "They don't have horns. They aren't animals. There must be some reason why they do what they do."