Entrevista com Mohsen Makmalbaf

By carlos

Interview with Mohsen MAKHMALBAF on the film THE SILENCE

Mamad Haghighat: How did you get the idea for your latest film, The Silence ?
Mohsen Makhmalbaf: It goes back to my childhood. My grandmother who was very religious said to me all the time: “If you listen to music, you’ll go to hell”. She made me stick my fingers in my ears when we were out in the street so I wouldn’t hear the music. It was for my own good! The first Western music I heard was Beethoven’s 5th. I was deeply affected by the splendor and strength of this piece. Since then, those four notes have been going round my head… As for the magnetic power of music, a blacksmith who worked for us told me that, one day while on the bus, he had tried to follow one of the passengers as he felt drawn by the music he was listening to, and he had got lost. That’s how I got the idea for the film.

M.H.: After Time of Love, The Silence is the second film you have shot abroad. Why is that ?
M.M.: In 1990, I was refused permission to shoot Time of Love in Iran. So I went to Turkey. I also shot part of the film The Cyclist in Pakistan. Two years ago, censorship beca¬me more and more severe, and I wanted to leave Iran to make films abroad. I wanted to go to an Oriental country – India, for example. In the end, I chose Tadzhikistan.

M.H.: Why Tadzhikistan ?
M.M.: It’s a Persian-speaking country which is high in color and poetry. To me, this coun¬try feels like a lost half of Iran. For several decades, the people of Tadzhikistan were forced to speak Russian, but despite it all, they continued to speak Persian in secret to preserve their cultural identity. They had no textbooks and their only written references were the works of the poets. That’s why their everyday language these days is close to poetry. They have rediscovered their roots but what’s surprising is that they sometimes recite prayers drinking wine or spout poems! If I had shot The Silence in Iran, I would of course have had to make concessions and change certain things.
Working abroad was a valuable experience which will be useful to me, should I ever be unable to make films in Iran. I think that a filmmaker should not limit himself to a single canvas. If he does, it spells death for an artist.

M.H.: In several of your films, there are close links with painting and poetry. Were you inspired by Omar Khayam’s poems in making The Silence ?
M.M.: In The Silence, the scene by the river where the girl puts petals on her nails to imitate nail varnish and cherries on her ears as earrings is inspired by a poem by Fourogh, but the general tone of the film is more inspired by Khayam who says “You must live in the moment…” Today I am moving away from a political cinema toward a more poetic cinema. I came to rea¬lize that politics shackles us. When you’re prisoner of an ideology or a certain political dogma, you tend to resemble others. Art, on the other hand, frees us. The artistic pro¬cess strives for originality. By searching for oneself, one sets oneself on the path to freedom. Cinema is an art. The more films one makes, the more one falls in love with it. That’s why I prefer poetry to politics.

M.H.: Iranian poetry is very metaphorical. Is your film very metaphorical, too ?
M.M.: In most of Khayam’s poems, the cen¬tral theme is “Make the most of the moment for we do not have long to live”. We have to rid ourselves of our complexes about the past and not think of our concerns for the future. It’s the same thing in The Silence. The protagonist is faced with eviction and about to be fired from his job. Despite all this, the little boy lives in the “moment”. He sacrifices the past and the future in favor of the present. Although he is blind, he is fascinated by the beauty of the world that he perceives thanks to his extremely well-developed sense of hearing. Because of this, he is concerned by the crea¬tive process just like an artist is. The Silence is a kind of contemporary representation of the spirit of Khayam. This film, for me, marks the passage from realism to surrealism. It is a conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. The story is simple – it’s the story of a boy who, despite the love he receives from those around him, is deprived of the moments of happiness that he would like to experience. Around him he creates a world in which he can be happy. He loves the beauty of the sound of dry bread as he crunches it. He is satisfied with the bare minimum.

M.H.: Indeed, you have arrived at a kind of minimalism…
M.M.: Perhaps, but the minimalism is in this very conflict. It’s not a conflict between indi¬viduals, but between man and his situation. The story is just a pretext. Stories belong to novels and to the cinema. In real life, we experience a succession of moments, but not a story. We create stories from life. We can concentrate a year of someone’s life into a two-hour film by keeping only the moments of interest to us. In The Silence, the background is often neutral – it’s a uni¬versal story. We have a character, a situation and certain conflicts. That is where the crea¬tive part comes in. Khorshid’s character is similar to mine. When I was a child, I was forbidden from doing almost everything. Now, when someone says: “Don’t listen to such and such a person”, this frustration provokes my creativity.

M.H.: In most of your films, the characters have a physical handicap, e.g. The Peddler, Time of Love, Salam Cinema and above all, in The Silence. How do you explain that ?
M.M.: I don’t know, I can’t !

M.H.: You often work with non-professional actors. What is the reason for this choice and how does it change the way you work ?
M.M.: Out of the fifteen films I have direc¬ted, only twice did I work with professional actors. The first time was for Once Upon a Time, Cinema and the second was The Actor. As The Actor dealt with the life of an Iranian film star, I asked this actor to play himself.
There are two schools of thought on actors. One claims that the advantage with profes¬sionals is that you work faster and you are more at ease with them. The second has it that when you work with stars, the director wastes 50% of his energy trying to erase previous roles and bring out the new cha¬racter. When you choose to work with a non-professional actor that the public is unfamiliar with, you avoid this conflict.

M.H.: You edit your films yourself. Do you think it is better for filmmakers to do this ?
M.M.: The director turns a screenplay into images. The editor then modifies this vision. For my first three films, I worked with an editor. I now think that the screenplay, the directing and the editing are the three key parts of a film. I couldn’t imagine anyone other than me writing or editing my films. The more I believe in auteur cinema, the less I would consider letting an editor edit my film.

M.H.: How do you view Iranian cinema under the presidency of Khatami ?
M.M.: It’s too soon to say. Every week, every month, the situation changes. For once, no film was censored for the Fajr Festival (Tehran, February 1998). Despite that, a few weeks later, the scene of the girl dancing in the instrument maker’s workshop in The Silence was censored. To protest against this, I have decided not to screen the film in Iran until this shot is restored to the film. As for the social situation, there is some impro¬vement. In the cinema, we are being alloca¬ted bigger production budgets. There is another kind of censorship – a Western cen¬sorship – imposed by capital and market forces. No one in particular is responsible. They are victims of tensions found in socie¬ty. For example, in the newspapers, a photo is published which causes a scandal. The next day, a law bans this kind of photo…

From a telephone interview by Mamad Haghighat (Paris – Tehran)

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