(A version of this piece was broadcast on Arena on 18th Feb): http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A20731200%3A1526%3A18%2D02%2D2015%3A
Recently I saw an Iranian film by Mohammad Rasoulof: Manuscripts Don’t Burn. It tells a creepy, absorbing story about censorship and corruption impinging on the lives of dissident writers in Iran. The bizarre ordinariness of it, and its calm, are horrifyingly compelling. Because it takes a while to figure out what’s going on and what the links are between the many characters, you have to pay extra-close attention. Your attention allows the film to absorb you, in the sense that you’re drawn into a position of witness, as opposed to spectator, to what’s happening.
The story centres on a State plot to kill a group of writers. A government agent tries to find and destroy copies of a manuscript that will reveal his involvement. He sends two agents to capture, torture and terrorise the writers who may or may not have those manuscripts in their keeping.
So far, so familiar for a political thriller. The real plot-twist comes when the film ends: Only writer/director Mohammad Rausolof is named. We are told that the absence of credits is a bid to protect anyone who took part in making the film from repercussions.
This apparently simple statement hitches fiction to reality. The issues the film addresses: censorship, state-surveillance, limited public discussion or expression of ideas – are real. The people involved in making the film took real, personal risks in doing so.
Mohammad Rasoulof and fellow Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi have been banned from making films because of their work. Accused of threatening Iranian national security, both have been sentenced to jail terms. Neither are actually in jail now, but the sentences loom over them – yet they continue to make films, either in direct defiance of the ban as with Manuscripts Don’t Burn or finding creative ways around it – Jafar Panahi’s latest film Taxi just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Its premise is that a hidden camera records a series of passengers as they talk candidly, documentary-style, about life in Tehran to the ‘driver’ (who is Panahi).
Taxi is the third film Panahi has made since the ban – In 2011 This is Not a Film arrived in Cannes on a memory stick hidden in a cake. He’s been quoted as saying that self-censorship is more dangerous than the state censorship that causes it. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Rasoulof said that he tried to avoid making Manuscripts Don’t Burn, but he was driven, he had to do it. Making the film brought him peace.
All of this calls to mind the ongoing situation of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (mentioned here on 18th January). Badawi was imprisoned for 10 years for setting up a website to promote secular discussion. He also faces 1000 lashes, to be delivered 50 at a time. The first of these public flayings took place in January; the rest were delayed following a doctor’s report and international protest. Badawi’s lawyer, Abu al Khair, was also imprisoned. Amnesty and PEN are just two organisations that campaign for their release (Links below).
Irish writers and filmmakers have little to complain about. We might feel overlooked, under-appreciated, under-funded and so on, but no one is going to put us in jail for what we write, say or make.
This film – and these people – make me ask myself: What do I do with this freedom? How do I live up to it? Where do I fail to exercise it? And: what responsibilities might attach to it?
Update, with thanks to Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty Ireland:
In February The European Parliament passed a resolution on Raif Badawi’s case by a huge majority (460 votes for, 153 votes against and 26 abstentions, full details: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-%2f%2fEP%2f%2fTEXT%2bMOTION%2bP8-RC-2015-0143%2b0%2bDOC%2bXML%2bV0%2f%2fEN&language=EN) Among other things it strongly condemns the flogging of Raif Badawi as a cruel and shocking act by the Saudi Arabian authorities; calls on the Saudi authorities to put a stop to any further flogging of Raif Badawi and to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is considered a prisoner of conscience, detained and sentenced solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression; calls on the Saudi authorities to ensure that his conviction and sentence, including his travel ban, are quashed.
Amnesty Ireland: http://www.amnesty.ie/
PEN International: http://www.pen-international.org/
PEN Canada: http://pencanada.ca/