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Friday, July 21, 2000

Playing for the home crowd

While Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Gabbeh" may seem like an extraordinarily lush art film to foreign audiences, and much of "A Moment of Innocence's" appeal comes from its human, everyday view of Tehran, both were designed to impact on deeper levels for Iranian audiences. Makhmalbaf may be older and wiser than the youth who attacked a cop, but he's no less radical. While embracing a vast array of styles and storytelling, his films are united by one common thread: a desire to engage with society, to comment, critique and foment discussion. In Iran, Makhmalbaf's work matters.

The director has been in Tokyo before -- he received a warm response at the 1996 Tokyo International Film Festival, where both of these works premiered -- but he was happy (in late May) to be back for the first proper opening of his films. The 43-year-old director of over 20 films spoke softly, through an interpreter, with The Japan Times about his work, and his ongoing battles with the censors.

On state censors:

[Three more of Makhmalbaf's film's are currently banned in Iran.] " 'Gabbeh' was banned only for about six months, but 'A Moment of Innocence' was banned for about three years. It was only after Khatami became president that it was permitted. At the time I made 'Gabbeh,' many things were forbidden -- they said the problem is that the girl is running away with her lover.

"Of course, we have very many good films in Iran despite the censorship. What we are doing is always using a new trick to pass through censorship. And the bureaucrats are always one step behind. In Iran we have a proverb: 'One roof with two skies.' In Iran, it's always like that -- they ban a film, but you can release the screenplay. Or for newspapers, under the law, they ban a newspaper by name, but also, under the law, the newspaper can change the name and publish the same ideas."

On "A Moment of Innocence":

"This film is somewhere between reality and a dream. I was going to critique the idea of violence as being necessary to a revolution. And for this reason, I started to criticize myself, as part of a generation who -- at the time -- thought we could save the world through violence. The character of the policeman was a true character, but the actor playing him was someone I chose.

"In Iranian cinema, we are often making fiction, but we work so hard to give it a base in reality, that many people don't realize it's fiction.

"In the film 'Marriage of the Blessed' (1989), when I was shooting it, the police actually came and arrested us, the whole crew. So I put that in the film too! If you are shooting and something happens, then you put it in front of the camera."

On the film's oblique structure:

"When you have an idea for a film, if you put the whole of the idea at the beginning, and then go systematically to the end of the film, it's not half as interesting as when you have a secret in your hand, you hide it, and you don't show it, until finally, you reveal it. With this kind of film, if you want to focus on the message from the beginning, it will only be average. You're talking about the reality from many perspectives, and many different angles, so you cannot talk about it from the beginning in a step-by-step way."

On his view of change in Iran:

"I am optimistic because it is not Khatami alone who is saying these things -- it is the young generation that chose Khatami and supports him. Twenty years ago, when the revolution happened, the population of Iran was 30 million; now it is over 70 million. It means that more than half the population of Iran is under 20 years old. It is a very young society, with a very different ideology: They want to be in love, and be free, and to listen to music. And this generation has nothing to lose.

"The problems of Iran all stem from the past, but the new generation are cutting the past from the present and future. Iran is like an old person's house, where they want to keep everything just as it was, with old photo albums covered in dust, full of memories. And they want the young generation to take care of this like a museum, to preserve it as it was. But the new generation wants to destroy this house, so they can use the material to make a new one where they can live better."

On his daughter Samira's success at Cannes with her film "Blackboards":

"As a father, I feel honor. Though nowadays people are asking me, 'Aren't you jealous of your daughter?' At the same time, I'm worried about the attention she's getting at that age. Samira herself once told me 'When I was 17, I made "The Apple," and I was traveling around the world with it, and everybody was asking me, "How do you feel at age 17 to make a film?" And for one year I was trying to explain to the people how I was feeling at 17, and then I realized that I was going to be 19, and I hadn't understood anything about being 18!' "

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