Nationality: Iranian. Born: Tehran, 1957 (some sources say 1952). Education: Left school at age fifteen to provide for his family. Career: Sentenced to death by firing squad at age 17 for stabbing a policeman, 1974; freed with Islamic revolution against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's regime, 1979; one of the founders of the Islamic Propagation Organization; earliest films screened in mosques; shifted from supporter of cleric control in Iran to an opponent of their control; five of his films have been banned in his own country. Awards: Special Jury Prize, Istanbul International Film Festival, for Nasseroddin Shah, hactore Cinema, 1993; Best Director and Prize of the Screenwriter's Critic and Writer's Catalan Association, Catalonian International Film Festival (Spain), and Best Artistic Contribution Award, Tokyo International Film Festival, for Gabbeh, 1996; Special Mention, Locarno International Film Festival, for Nun va Goldoon, 1996; "CinemAvvenire" Award and Sergio Trasatti Award (Special Mention), Venice Film Festival, for Sokhout, 1998; and many other awards. Address: c/o Green Film House. 98 Mirdamad Boulevard, PO Box 19395/4866, Téhéran, Iran; c/o MK2 Diffusion, 55 rue Traversière, 75012 Paris, France.
Films as Director and Writer:
Tobeh Nosuh (Nasooh's Repentance)
Do Cheshman Beesu (Two Sightless Eyes); Este'aze (SeekingRefuge in God) (+ ed)
Baycot (Boycott) (+ ed)
Dastforoush (The Peddler) (+ ed)
Bicycleran (The Cyclist) (+ prod des)
Arousi-ye Khouban (The Marriage of the Blessed) (+ ed)
Nobat e Asheqi (Time of Love) (+ ed)
Shabhaye Zayendeh-Rood (Nights of Zaendeh-Rood) (+ ed)
Nasseroddin Shah, hactore Cinema (Once upon a Time,Cinema) (+ ed)
Honarpisheh (The Actor) (+ ed); Gozideh tasvir dar doran-eQajar (Images from the Ghajar Dynasty) (doc)
Salaam Cinema (+ ed, ro as himself); Sang-o shisheh (Stoneand Glass) (doc)
Gabbeh (+ ed); Nun va Goldoon (A Moment of Innocence) (+ ed, ro as himself)
Sokhout (The Silence) (+ ed)
Ghessé hayé kish (Tales of Kish; Kish Tales) (+ ed)
Towjeeh (Haghaniparast) (sc)
Marg Deegari (Honarmand) (sc); HesardarHesar (Honarmand) (sc)
Zangha (Honarmand) (sc)
Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up) (Kiarostami) (ro as himself)
Deedeh-Ban (Hatamikia) (ed)
Sib (The Apple) (Samirah Makhmalbaf) (sc, ed)
Takhte Siah (Blackboard) (Samira Makhmalbaf) (sc, ed)
On MAKHMALBAF: articles—
White, Armond, "18th New Directors/New Film Festival," in FilmComment (New York), May-June 1989.
Johnson, William, "The Peddler," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1990.
Smith, Gavin, "Method in Movie Madness: Salaam Cinema," in Film Comment (New York), July-Aug. 1996.
Cheshire, Godfrey, "Makhmalbaf: The Figure in the Carpet," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1997.
Johnson, William, "Gabbeh," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1997.
Ditmars, Hadani, "From the Top of the Hill," Sight and Sound (London), vol. 6, no. 12, November 1997.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Makhmalbaf and Dostoevsky: A Limited Comparision," in The Chicago Reader, October 1999.
Cheshire, Godfrey, "Overthrowing the Auteur: A Moment of Innocence," in CinemaScope, winter 2000.
Hoffman, Adina, "Makmalbaf's Moment," in American Prospect, vol. 11, 24 April 2000.
On MAKHMALBAF: films—
Petgar, Maani, director, Cinema Cinema, 1994.
Golmakani, Houshang, director, StardustStricken—MohsenMakhmalbaf: A Portrait, 1996.
Daneshmand, Shapour, Makhmalbaf: UnveilinganIslamicFilmmaker, 1998.
* * *
One of the indelible images of Mohsen Makhmalbaf comes not from his own work as director but from an onscreen appearance. In Close-Up, a 1989 film by his Iranian compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf enters the film in its final minutes, playing himself. Close-Up is an ingeniously layered story, based on fact, about a smalltime swindler who convinced a Tehran family he was the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In a prime example of Iranian cinema's tendency to turn its fiction in on itself, the real people in the case also play themselves in the film. Makhmalbaf arrives as a surprisingly benevolent presence, considering the particulars of the case, a sympathetic and interested artist, not so much angry as curious.
All of those words—curious, angry, sympathetic, artist—describe stages of Makhmalbaf's unusual career. Like the American Paul Schrader, he was raised in a fundamentalist religious household (Islamic, in Makhmalbaf's case) and did not see a movie until after adolescence. Like the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, he began his career as a maker of revolutionary propaganda, only to run afoul of the authorities (many of his 1990s films have been banned in Iran) when his outlook broadened.
In 1974 Makhmalbaf was arrested for terrorist activities aimed at the Shah's government, and was spared the death penalty by virtue of his youth. These experiences inspired his films Boycott (1985) and the remarkable A Moment of Innocence (1996). Released from prison at the time of the Islamic revolution, Makhmalbaf turned to militant politics, which led to the didactic nature of his early features. A turning point came with The Peddler (1986), a scorching collection of three stories that would not be out of place as Persian episodes of The Twilight Zone. One is a horrific tale of poverty-stricken parents trying to leave a newborn infant with an upper-class family; another depicts the madness of a goony-bird son, part Anthony Perkins of Psycho and part Jerry Lewis, "caring" for his immobile mother; the last is a street-level gangster quasi-parody that anticipates Quentin Tarantino by a decade. Utterly unsparing, The Peddler initiated a cycle of social-comment films that made Makhmalbaf a significant cultural observer in Iran.
With Once upon a Time, Cinema (1992), the director turned his attention to film itself. A larky mix of Arabian Nights exotica and film history, the picture cleverly weaves clips from landmark Iranian cinema into a story about an early 20th century ruler. Its references, both cinematic and historical, may not translate in full to an international audience, but its technical playfulness—not so far from the trickery of Zelig or Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid—is ingenious.
Once upon a Time was conceived to mark the 100th anniversary of film, as was the very different Salaam Cinema. The event captured in Salaam Cinema was originally intended as a casting call for nonprofessional actors, a call that brought out thousands more acting hopefuls than Makhmalbaf expected. These auditions, the interplay between director and inexperienced performers, became the film. The result is, in the words of Film Comment's Gavin Smith, "A strange, hybrid document of an experiment-happening. . . . The auditions range from harmless make-believe exercises in play-acting to emotionally manipulative and humiliating challenges that stop just short of abusive." Makhmalbaf "plays" himself in the film, but as an exaggerated dictator, an example of bullying authority.
In the middle of the decade, having already gained popularity in his homeland and a certain amount of international notice, Makhmalbaf kept changing and evolving. "When I started making films," he told Sight and Sound, "my focus was political. But now I understand that life is larger than politics. . . . (N)ow I think that the best approach to save humanity is through going back to the beauty and the poetry of everyday life." Two of the truly extraordinary films of the decade, both initially banned in Iran, were the result. Gabbeh (1996), a tale of love and storytelling amongst the nomads of the remote countryside, has a lush visual beauty new to Makhmalbaf's work. A gabbeh is a densely woven rug, and the film itself is a tapestry of myth, nature, and cultural tradition—with a strong sympathy for the unfair place of women in its world.
A Moment of Innocence (1996) returns to Makhmalbaf's arrest in the 1970s. But it is not a simple dramatic re-creation of a provocative incident (the young Makhmalbaf stabbed a policeman outside a police station, and was himself shot). At the beginning of the film, the policeman stabbed by Makhmalbaf shows up at the director's house, looking for work in movies—an incident that actually occurred some years earlier. We then watch director and cop cast actors as their younger selves, to play out the 1974 incident on film. Some of the principals, including Makhmalbaf, play themselves, in a device recalling Close-Up. The film flips back and forth between filmmaking process and the 1970s story, leading to an uncannily moving ending that seems to operate on a half-dozen different levels at once. (At about this time, the director's daughter Samira had an international success with her own directing debut, The Apple.)
Makhmalbaf's 1998 film The Silence has the shape of a typical Iranian film: a 10-year-old boy, blind, earns money as a guitar-tuner so his mother won't be evicted from their home. But the movie upends expectations, as the boy becomes increasingly obsessed with the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which thrum inside his head. The vibrant colors of the film raise the question of whether the director is becoming self-consciously "exotic" after the success of Gabbeh, but the film's ideas are tantalizing and powerful.
Describing the artisans of Gabbeh, Makhmalbaf has said, "They weave patterns spontaneously, without planning. They are inspired by reality around them. . . And they also weave their dreams into the carpet. . . . No two carpets are alike. Each is a unique reflection of the weaver's life." The parallel with his own films is a powerful one, and stands as a statement of the unique experience—and willingness to change and grow—this director brings to the screen.