As controversial or provocative as certain films can be, most filmmakers will never see their work used as evidence against them in court. They enjoy the basic right to speak their mind and translate their perceptions of the world around them into cinematic works. Whether these questions their leaders or speaks up about an uncomfortable subject, the law protects their freedom of speech. But how many would continue to be inquisitive if the making of a film could endanger their lives and those of everyone involved in the production?
Courageous filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof takes film out of the safe denomination of entertainment into the real life stakes of social change through his latest audacious work “Manuscripts Don’t Burn.” After being sentenced to six years in prison in 2010 (which would be later decreased to one year) and banned from filmmaking for 20 years, it would be logical to assume that the fear they tried to instilled in him would prevent the director from continue working in the medium. With an admirable determination, Rasoulof did not renounce his craft and has continued to work without permission. Shooting guerrilla style and requesting help from foreign colleagues to release his films abroad.
Intellectuals, who through their writings or art can spread ideas that will not favor the regime, are permanently considered a priority target. The film revolves around a particular event in which the head of the Iranian censorship department, an ex-intellectual himself, planned to eliminate several writers at once as by having one of his men drive their bus off a cliff as they travel to an event in Armenia. The murderous attempt fails and the survivors become the unwanted “witnesses of an unfinished crime.” Under the horrifying reasoning of the state, they need to be stopped from disseminating the incriminating information regarding the failed ordeal.
Hired to do the government’s filthy work, Khosrow, a humble man with an ill son, and Morteza, an unscrupulous seasoned hitman, are called in when the censor finds out one of those intellectuals, Kasra, has written a manuscript unveiling uncomfortable truths. Not only does he narrates in detail their intentions of killing everyone in the bus, but he was also the censor’s cellmate and has first-hand knowledge of how he sold out to the atrocious regime in exchange for power. Knowing that he is under surveillance, Kasra gives two copies of the manuscript to other people to safeguard. He is sure the intelligence service is coming for him. He is not mistake.
Other writers like Kian, who also came out alive of the horrific experience, have given up the fight. He tries to persuade his close friend Fourouzadeh, yet another survivor, to not attempt to publish his own latest provocative work. Fueled by desperation Fourouzadeh, who is also disabled, states he will not stop until his book is out in the world physically even if it means illegally printing copies of it. Unfortunately for them, the omnipresent regime has also been monitoring their “subversive” encounters.
Unconcerned with the human lives they take day in and day out, Morteza and Khosrow have become too desensitize to feel compassion. They stop for a lunch break as their victim waits terrified in the trunk, while they discuss their modus operandi in a nonchalant manner for the one on the receiving end of the violence to hear. Guarded by the shield of religion enacted as law, they reassure themselves that what they are doing is all in order to “please God.” By helping the state get rid of those who presumably want to betray their country, they are not only saving themselves but also fulfilling their duty. Twisted self-righteous beliefs like these enable them to push through remorse.
Rasoulof’s film serves as a brutal exposé of his nation's suffocating aversion to any sign of opposition, which quickly labels all those who even slightly dare to deviate from the Islamic law as traitors. Drinking a few shots if vodka can ruin someone’s reputation in the eyes of God according to his self-appointment intermediates on Earth: the Iranian government. It is an act of defiance that emanates from the agonizing decades of repression, which have evolved into collective despair.
Beyond the political connotations the film evokes, it is also a compelling thriller that was shot with perfect art house aestheticism despite the limitations and the secrecy behind it. Sadly, the talented and brave cast and crew must go unnamed. Where the credits should be there is only blackness accompanied by note that informs their identities have been kept anonymous in order to protect them from retaliation. By crafting an outstandingly unflinching visual statement, they’ve proven that storytelling is a tool for a society to be empowered against injustice. No one can mute the powerful voice of the images once they have been seen.
Subtly and keeping his plea cinematic and authentic, Rasoulof’s "Manuscripts" is a clandestine art work that bluntly and fearlessly looks at his censors in the eye making it clear that their insidious and invasive tactics will
never be enough to silence his voice. The flame of indifference shall not burn his audiovisual manuscript. It must be seen. Few films have ever felt as
desperately relevant, haunting, and deserving of attention as his.