Director Mohammad Rasoulof, released 12 September
Dissident Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a brave and brutal depiction of corruption, violence and state censorship in today’s Iran. He defied a 20-year work ban to make this chilling political thriller which he has been unable to officially show in Iran. It is more than an exposure of state repression – it’s personal.
Inspired by what are known as the “Chain Murders” of more than 80 intellectuals and political activists between 1988 and 98, it is a daring and provocative work. It tells the story of two hitmen, Khosrow and Morteza, whose job it is to hunt down, torture and interrogate dissidents. Their boss is an even more unpleasant character. A former radical now working for the security services, he has no qualms about advancing his career by killing his former friends.
Together they are searching for a manuscript that recalls an abortive attempt by the state to rid itself of a group of radical writers by driving their bus off a cliff. This is an actual event which happened in 1995. The survivors and authors of the manuscript live in fear and are under constant surveillance by the state. Cynical of the new generation’s ability to fight back, these older dissidents remain defiant, determined to find ways to expose the regime.
The state functionaries, although they describe what they do as something they do for god, one worries that if their victim is innocent god will take it out on his sick son. In contrast, the intellectuals smoke and drink vodka without this dilemma. Rasoulof interweaves the stories together bit by bit, forcing the audience to pay close attention to the narrative but also to bear witness to the events.
The claustrophobic feel of the film, aided by his use of stark, bleak landscapes, helps to emphasise the barren psychological and spiritual torment that the writers feel.
In taking the title of the film from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-Soviet satirical novel The Master and Margarita, Rasoulof draws parallels between the dissident artists of Stalinist Russia and Iran’s film makers today. However, Rasoulof’s own position as a film maker is that he is too prominent for the regime to be able to exile, imprison or kill him. It is much more like that of Ai Wei Wei in China, a target of constant official harassment and hostility.
The film is a cry of rage against the injustice and brutality of the system. It will kick a hornets’ nest in Iran and took guts and personal courage to produce it. For this reason alone it is well worth watching.