Manuscripts Don't Burn, a searingly angry, chilling, and despairing work by Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, is a visceral reminder that the ability to express oneself freely, whether in journalistic or creative endeavors, is never something to be taken for granted or regarded lightly.
Rasoulof's creation of his latest film is an inspiringly brave and politically dangerous act that boldly defies the 20-year ban from filmmaking - also given to his fellow filmmaker and frequent collaborator Jafar Panahi - imposed on him by the Iranian government. Rasoulof's previous films, such as Iron Island (2005) and The White Meadows (2009), cloaked his critiques of the repressive and hostile environment that artists and political dissidents in Iran are forced to live under with allegorical and often quite lyrical imagery.
However, even being this indirectly critical proved to be too much for government authorities, who eventually punished him for his work, both with the filmmaking ban and a one-year prison sentence. Beginning with his 2011 film Goodbye (which depicted a woman attorney attempting to escape Iran), Rasoulof has jettisoned the allegorical and poetical constructs he used to employ in order to directly confront the evils of state censorship and government reprisals against artists and freethinkers which have impacted him personally.
Manuscripts Don't Burn, like Goodbye, was shot clandestinely, its footage smuggled out of Iran to film festivals abroad, where both films have been shown and acclaimed. In the case of this new film, exteriors were shot secretly in Iran, while interior scenes were filmed in Germany, where Rasoulof had been living and working part time while traveling back and forth from there and Iran.
Manuscripts Don't Burn is perhaps the rawest and most direct cinematic protest against the Iranian government that has ever been filmed. A prime indicator of the politically incendiary nature of this work is the fact no cast and crew credits other than Rasoulof's appear on the film, to protect the director's collaborators from reprisal from the authorities. Also, all the actors who appear on camera are now expatriates living outside of Iran, who most surely would face severe punishment for their involvement if they returned to Iran.
The film follows Khosrow and Morteza, two government-hired enforcers who are sent to kidnap and silence (and kill, if need be) intellectuals whose writings are considered dangerous, and contain evidence of crimes the state wants to keep covered up. Khosrow and Morteza's target is Kasra, a journalist who has written an account of an attempt to kill a group of intellectuals - considered politically hostile by the government - on their way to a conference by engineering a crash by planting a bus driver hired to carry it out.
This attempted murder proved to be unsuccessful, but all the surviving passengers were forbidden to speak of it, and now the authorities are attempting to eliminate all evidence of the incident by tracking down Kasra, as well as the two friends to whom he gave copies of his account in case anything happened to him.
This search driving the plot of the film is directly based on a real series of incidents that occurred in Iran, the so-called "chain murders" of intellectuals that took place from 1988 to 1998, during which some 80 people were killed. Hardliners in the Iranian government's security apparatus were apparently responsible, but the identities of the actual perpetrators and the extent of government's official involvement in these murders have remained murky and unsolved to this day.
The film alternates between Khosrow and Morteza's pursuit of Kasra, and the conversations between Fourouzadeh, a wheelchair-bound writer, and his friend and colleague Kian, the two people who have copies of Kasra's manuscript. Very interestingly, both pairs of men who exist on opposite sides of the government/dissident dividing line have a similarly contrasting dynamic at work in their relationships. Khosrow feels anxious about having to do the work that he does and is mostly motivated by earning money to get his sick child into surgery; Morteza experiences no such qualms of conscience and asserts that everything they do is completely justified by sharia law.
Meanwhile, Fourouzadeh has his own book that he wishes to publish without going through the censorship apparatus; not satisfied with publishing on the web, he wants hard copies printed so that his defiance of the authorities will feel more real. Kian is far more despairing, and feels Fourouzadeh's pursuit is useless and ineffectual. He declares that they've already lost their battle against the state, and that young people today don't care anymore about such matters and are more interested in their social-networking activities - men such as them are now little more than irrelevant dinosaurs.
All of this has the feel of a slow-burn thriller, one constructed with some fascinating stylistic quirks, such as a nonlinear time structure which isn't apparent until the later stretches of the film. Also, conversations between characters often transition to voiceover, during which we hear them speaking despite the fact that their lips are no longer moving. This functions as a potent metaphor for the repressive atmosphere that both the perpetrators of governmental violence and their victims must endure; physically they must remain silent, while their words and thoughts are taken away from them.
Manuscripts Don't Burn is not without its flaws, such as overly wordy expository dialog, and the blunt nature of its political protest often overwhelming other aspects of the film, such as performance and smooth transitions between scenes and plot strands. But such flaws can be easily forgiven, given the circumstances of its clandestine production, as well as the considerable bravery it took to even make the existence of this film a physical possibility. Rasoulof himself paid a heavy price for creating this film; upon his return to Iran last fall, his passport was confiscated and now he is unable to leave the country.
This remarkable film indeed exists, however, and circulates around the world as a powerful testimonial to the power of art to transcend even the most severe orchestrated efforts of government to suppress it. As such, it is an inspiring example to artists across the world living under similarly repressive circumstances, and proof that their work has a chance to reach receptive eyes and ears, and a possible amelioration of unjust and inhuman artistic restraints.
Manuscripts Don't Burn is now playing in New York at the Museum of Modern Art through June 19. For showtimes and tickets, visit MoMA's website. For more information on the film, and where else it will be playing across the U.S., visit Kino Lorber's website.