The President’s Mohsen Makmalbaf: ‘A camera is like a gun’

The Iranian filmmaker may have been shot, tortured and banned from his homeland, but he remains devoted to his craft, finds Anna Behrmann

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a prolific Iranian filmmaker and activist, and he is also a man who has lived many lives, and in many countries.

As a 17-year-old in the early ‘70s, he rebelled against the Shah’s dictatorship, was injured by police bullets and spent five years in prison. He was tortured and had to have several operations before he could walk again. But he discovered the power of storytelling while in prison and started making films on his release.

“The news is not enough,” Makhmalbaf says. “The news is short, and they report the story, but they do not go deep. Film gives us the opportunity to change people by showing them the tragedy in the world that surrounds us.”

The 58-year-old director became a critic of the Islamic Republic, which overthrew the Shah in 1979, and a supporter of the opposition Green movement.

He now lives in Golders Green with his wife and grown-up children, but he is unsurprisingly unwilling to give his exact address. After Makhmalbaf fled Iran 11 years ago, he has survived attempts on his life in Afghanistan and Paris.

He believes both attempts were orchestrated by the Iranian secret police.

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Makhmalbaf’s latest film, The President, is now being screened at JW3 and follows the story of a dictator who loses his power and escapes into the country, with his young grandson. “He observes the tragedy that he created for his nation,” Makhmalbaf says. “And little by little we feel that maybe he has some regret, but he’s too late.”

Filmed in Georgia, the film is inspired by the numerous hopeful and blood-soaked revolutions of the Arab Spring; in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria.

Crucially, Makhmalbaf wishes to show how violence breeds violence; that brutality against the exiting dictator will lead to bloodshed later on. He says that the new ruling party will hang on to their power, even if it means killing their own people, as they know too well the gruesome end that awaits them if they lose their grip.

Makhmalbaf sees this pattern across the Arab Spring. “We see dictatorships with their systems of torture and prison,” he says. “And then there is a revolution and for a few days there is hope, but there are not enough good days.

“First there is anarchy, then the people tire of anarchy. Then they try to control the anarchy, and they create another dictatorship – the problem repeats itself.

“When we look back to those revolutions, the majority of them failed. And we didn’t make enough films, and we didn’t write enough books about these tragedies to try to understand why – why we couldn’t be successful, why we created violence instead of democracy and peace.”

Makhmalbaf’s films are banned in Iran and he believes that he cannot go back. He has now directed documentaries and films in 10 countries: Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, Tajikistan, India, South Korea, Israel, Georgia and England.

Still highly critical of the Iranian regime, Makhmalbaf has hope for Iran. “The Iranian people are educated people, and the majority of people have access to the internet,” he says. “The Iranian people deserve and are ready for democracy.”

While Makhmalbaf believes that the Supreme Leader of Iran still has all the power behind the scenes, he is cautiously optimistic about the President’s moves to open up relations with the West, including the agreement over the Iranian nuclear programme. “It’s better that we have negotiations,” he says.

The director is hugely optimistic about the power of film. “I’m not a person who looks behind, to see if he is safe or not,” Makhmalbaf says. “One day we will all die – it’s not important when you die; it’s important what you do to make change.

“Cinema can change an audience’s mind, and by changing their mind, we can change the whole world. For me a camera is like a gun – with my camera I can shoot 25 bullets into the darkness.”

For details, visit The President will be showing at the Tricycle Theatre from 28th August