Friday, March 15, 2013

Mohsen Makhmalbaf Films Himself Filming an Actor Playing Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Moment of Innocence

In a recent blog post, I made reference to a key incident in the life of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf.  When he was seventeen years old and consumed with revolutionary fervor (this was in the time of the last Shah), he stabbed a police officer in a thwarted attempt to steal his gun.  I should have noted that this was also probably a key incident in the life of the police officer he stabbed.  Well, I may not have thought of this, but Makhmalbaf certainly did, and in the mid-90’s he reached out to the police officer in an effort to make peace over the event.  This led to the creation of his 1996 film, A Moment of Innocence, in which Makhmalbaf plays himself working with the policeman to make a film about the stabbing.

There are so many levels of meta at play here, and they are accentuated by the fact that the film stock used to record this movie looks kind of cheap.  Now, I am somewhat ignorant of the technical aspects of film recording (much to my shame), but I notice that a lot of Iranian movies from the 1990’s (like Kiarostami’s Close-Up or Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema) have a grainy, faded kind of look to them.  I suspect that Iranian directors have subsequently gone digital, as recent films like A Separation and The Hunter look just as crisp as anything coming out of Europe or East Asia.  And they look lovely in their own right, but they lose something too; because the grainy mid-90’s films of Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami are so thoroughly grounded in reality (or what looks like reality, anyway) that, when they do veer off into whimsicality or oneiricism, these flights of fancy become all the more pronounced (a similar principle can be found at play in the “weird stories” of H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, who understood that the element of horror is most effective when placed in contrast to a well-defined, non-fantastical reality).

In fact, I wonder if shit didn’t get too real for Makhmalbaf in making A Moment of Innocence.  Although Makhmalbaf (or rather, “Makhmalbaf”) never explicitly apologizes to the policeman, his victim makes it abundantly clear that the knife attach seriously fucked up his life.  He was injured, he became depressed, he quit the police force.  Although, interestingly enough, we never hear any details about what exactly he did while he was in the police.  Did he ever break up anti-Pahlavi rallies? Did he assault protestors? Did he ever arrest or torture dissidents?  Or was he just a generally inoffensive beat cop?  When Makhmalbaf stabbed him, he was apparently just on patrol in a bazaar.  Makhmalbaf stabbed him because he wanted his gun, which he would presumably use to kill… who?

Makhmalbaf has some poignant exchanges with the actor he’s selected to play his younger self.  The actor is an idealist (like Makhmalbaf was, which is how he got the part) and he claims he wants to save the world.  While they’re trying to shoot the assault scene, the lines between reality and film blur, and the young actor becomes upset, because he doesn’t want to stab anyone.  When Makhmalbaf says, “Don’t you want to save the world?” the kid responds with something like, “Surely there are other ways to save the world that don’t involve stabbing anyone.” And Makhmalbaf has probably learned that himself over the years.  He hasn’t stabbed anyone since.  But the pain and the terror of his assault on the policeman is something that persists; it will stay with both men until they die.  No matter what Makhmalbaf feels about violence now, he can’t undo what he did.  One wonders what he hopes to accomplish by restaging the incident from his youth.  Does he want to supplant the memory of the actual incident with a cinematic reinterpretation, with different people in a different time?  Or is there an opposite impulse at play?  Does he want to leave us a filmic record of the incident, so that it will remain forever vivid and available to future generations?

As a side-note, Makhmalbaf does a remarkably good job of playing himself.  I mentioned Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), and Makhmalbaf plays himself here as well, in yet another fictionalization of a real-life incident.  There’s a self-awareness and reflexivity to Iranian cinema that we don’t often see elsewhere.  Iranian directors don’t have a problem with turning the camera on themselves.  I just recently watched This is Not a Film, a documentary by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb about a day in the life of Panahi as he copes with house arrest and a ban on making films following his involvement in the 2009 anti-government protests in Iran.  There’s a wonderful scene in that film in which Mirtahmasb films Panahi with his high-tech digital camera while Panahi films Mirtahmasb with a smart phone.  Like the Borgesian mirrors, these two recording devices theoretically reflect each other back and forth ad infinitum.  This is reflexivity taken to its furthest logical extreme.

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