The great Iranian director held an inspiring talk at the opening of IDFAcademy. Read the full story below.
IDFAcademy opened on Thursday morning with an inspiring session in which the great Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf spoke about his childhood, career and ideas about filmmaking and cinema, in a conversation with IDFA's artistic director Orwa Nyrabia.
Makhmalbaf was born in a poor family in south Teheran, and was abandoned by his mother and father to be brought up by a strictly religious grandmother. "My grandmother was trying to protect me. She said, if I went to cinema, God would send me to hell. So as a child I didn't see any movies."
Actually, Makhmalbaf had to wait until he was 22 to see his first films. He was active in politics from the age of 15, and when he was 17 he was imprisoned for political reasons. In 1979, when the Islamic Revolution took place, he was released and went back to politics.
"But I realized very soon that our country has a cultural problem and that is why we created another dictatorship," Makhmalbaf recalled. "So I went into culture, and I started to write first. I made a film without any knowledge about cinema. I started like the Lumière brothers, learning as I went along. I thought the camera would be like a pen - if I can write, I can make a film. So I learned cinema by making films. I made three films without having any technique. I started reading books about art, cinema, theater... I read about 400 books."
What is more important than the number of books (and anyway, those authors copy from each other, according to Makhmalbaf, so it means "we don't really have 400 books about cinema") is the way he was reading them.
"It is similar to computer filing," he explained. "I saw there were many different things in one book - about screenwriting, editing, about lenses… So I would separate them by different categories. For example, one paper for advice on acting, and another paper about editing. So by dividing by the subjects and summarizing, I realized that those 400 books have, for me, become 200 rules.
"When I made my next film, they said, 'A new cinematic genius has arrived!' What genius, man, it was just those rules that I learned and summarized," Makhmalbaf quipped. "My knowledge about cinema fits in one notebook. I still teach those 200 rules like an alphabet of cinema, which was the best university for me. When you categorize, everything that you need comes to you exactly when you need it."
This was the cue for Nyrabia to ask for a clip from Makhmalbaf's 1985 masterpiece Salaam Cinema, in which the director, playing a meta version of himself, is auditioning an aspiring actor who arrives already inside the role of a blind man. This wildly original approach nudged Nyrabia to say, "I am resisting your idea about the rules, because I saw how you changed all of them. You invented your own, personal language in which the mix of documentary and fiction is so strong that it is beyond the point to even think about what is reality."
Makhmalbaf responded, "It is rather an alphabet than the rules. I have made 20 feature films, five shorts and five documentaries, and I can say none of them is similar to another. I don't have a style, because I don't want to repeat myself. When you have an alphabet, you can always create a story in a different way.
"You mention my language is personal, and that is very important. Because cinema in itself is just a tool, it has no meaning in itself. You need something else, and experience of life is a good source for your knowledge. So when you mix cinema and your life, then you are able to say something only you can say."
Following a question from the audience, Makhmalbaf explained his basic filmmaking principles: "I believe in three things. Firstly, a film should be attractive—it can be done in different ways, sometimes through humor, sometimes through fear. Secondly, the film has to have a meaning—when you leave the cinema, you ask yourself, what did I learn? And the third thing is magic—without magic, art is not art. And magic is related to subconsciousness, not rules. You know the rules, but you let your subconsciousness work for you. This is especially effective at night, when you are sleepy and can't control everything. This is where craziness comes into the film."
What also informs Makhmalbaf's filmmaking is humanist sciences. While in prison, he read one book a day, on all possible topics—philosophy, sociology, psychology, and history. This is particularly important for his 1992 film Once Upon a Time, Cinema in which he used 20 clips from 20 Iranian films and mixed them with an original story about a figurative king.
"Iranian cinema has its roots in poems," he explained. "Western cinema is based on paintings and photography, but in Islam painting was forbidden, and we have 30,000 books of poems. So Iranian cinema was different—we didn't repeat what Hollywood did, nor what dark European arthouse films did, with all these boring stories about loneliness. When we are watching a film in the cinema, we are not alone, we are together—this is when loneliness runs away.
"The new wave of Iranian cinema was talking about friendship and peace in very violent times, and it was poetic, but also socially aware—in part inspired by Italian neorealism. We as artists have a responsibility towards society."
"For me, cinema is about love of creation and responsibility for other people. We have to do something. For example, at the moment in Iran people are dying because they are protesting against the dictator. Just last week more than 100 people were killed in the street by the police. I cannot sit here and say I am an artist; it is not my business. I belong to those people who are dying for freedom, to those people who are poor."
This is why Makhmalbaf considers his 2001 documentary The Afghan Alphabet his best and most important film.
"In Iran we had three million Afghan refugees. 747,000 of them were children without education, during [Iranian president Mohammad] Khatami's time, when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, in Iran the Afghan children could not attend school because their parents arrived without visa.
"I saw many Afghan children standing outside and looking at schools with a desire to study, to learn. I made the film in one week with a handicam, but I didn't show it to the audience. Instead I showed it to people from the government. From morning to midnight I had appointments with ministers and I showed them the film, and it made them cry. I was able to change the law, so schools opened up for half a million Afghan children. This is the most important thing I did in my life."
"Without making a difference, cinema is not useful. Some people make films to become famous or make money, for some filmmaking is a job, but for some of us filmmaking is a tool to change the world. When you are an artist, you have the ability to save a human being by talking about their pain and desire."
Bringing the talk to a close, Makhmalbaf added that for him "Cinema is meaning. I am still an idealist," and went on to advise the IDFAcademy participants: "Do not worry about awards. What you have to do is enjoy the process of making films. We need you. We need your voice and we need you to find the truth with your point of view."