Maziar Bahari's Top 10

When Ally Derks asked me to list my top ten documentaries, I just didn’t know what to say. Should I name films that make me sound like someone with a goatee and Jarvis Cocker glasses, or should I list my guilty pleasures so that those who know me will have an even lower opinion of my tastes? To tell the truth, I don’t really have a top ten anything.

But a list of films is a good opportunity to make a few statements (my favorite pastime) and, in the age of video, to re-visit a few films I’ve always wanted to watch on the big screen. This is certainly not a list of the best documentaries ever made. And some of the films are not even documentaries. Rather, it’s a combination of films that inspired me to make films myself at various points in my life, or which have affected me in one way or another.

The Iranian documentary The Night It Rained – which tells the story of a boy who heroically saved a train from crashing in Iran in the 1960s – was the first film that made me want to make documentaries. It’s the second film I ever saw in my life (the first one, Easy Rider, made me want to go to the bathroom every 5 minutes). I’m not sure how old I was when I saw The Night It Rained, maybe 4 or 5, and I don’t even know whether or not I watched the whole film. But I remember seeing the film with my older brother and him enjoying it a lot. He explained the story of the film to me after the screening. I think it is still one of the most modern Iranian films ever made. In Rashomon-style, the film brilliantly shows that the whole boy-hero story was a hoax, fabricated by a government desperate for heroes. I didn’t think about the film for a few years, until I read the same story of the boy hero in a primary school book. I told the teacher I had seen a film about it being a hoax and that we shouldn’t believe everything we read in our school books. The teacher told me to shut up and sent me to the principal’s office. He in turn gave me three choices: 1) immediately find the film I was talking about; 2) be thrown out of school; 3) apologize. Well, I couldn’t remember the name of the film (even if I could have, how the hell could I have found the film that day?). Plus my parents had had enough of me getting thrown out of schools every year. So I apologized.

The Night It Rained by Kamran Shirdel

Our principal was a typical product of the Iranian bureaucratic system: an outdated melange of 19th-century British and French bureaucracies. His duty was to keep his job in the system and respect the rules. My hatred of him, and every school official who threw me out of school after him, made me realize that there is nothing more harmful to humanity than choosing one’s own comfort and security above the common good. Bureaucrats at their worst (i.e. the best bureaucrats) are clear examples of how you can lose your soul trying to play it ‘safe’. When I migrated to Canada from Iran in 1988, like most immigrants, financial security was my main concern. I knew I wanted to make films, but I also knew that ‘filmmaker’ is the antonym for ‘secure’. So I toyed with the idea of getting a government job – until I saw Donald Brittain’s Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed. The film is about civil servants. Freud calls them “the necessary evil”. Brittain presents them as “creatures who at best resemble truncated remnants of a human being”. The images of government employees from different countries gyrating over the minute details of their mundane tasks are some of the most boring images in the history of cinema. But Brittain’s dry humor and his obvious disdain for everything he filmed make Paperland an extraordinary viewing experience. Even though I can never dislike my characters as much as Brittain does in this film, I think of Paperland as an exceptional film. It is also one of the best film essays I’ve ever seen; a genre that can easily be boring in the wrong hands.

As someone who’s spent much of the past four years in Iraq, I think the American occupation of Iraq is the most important event of our time and, fortunately or unfortunately, I have been one of the few people who have been able to document the war from the beginning. Despite the nightly news about Iraq, I don’t think there has been a good film about the war there and the thinking behind it. In the meantime, if you want to understand the American government’s reasoning behind the debacle in Iraq, two films tell the story much better than any book or article. They are not documentaries, but they give us a fly-on-the-wall view of the American attitude towards the war – maybe you could call them ‘dream documentaries’. In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick shows the insanity of the warmongers in Washington as well as the madness of their enemies. George C. Scott’s character could be easily based on Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld and the mad Russian ambassador resembles any Ba’athist or other Middle-Eastern egotistical autocrat. In the light of the events in Iraq, Dr. Strangelove seems almost prophetic. But what if Dick Cheney could make his own film? The Green Berets as a work of art is garbage, but I don’t know of any other film that does a better job of presenting the gung-ho attitude of pro-war Americans. I wish someone had the guts to make an updated version of The Green Berets set in Iraq. John Wayne famously said, “Life is hard, but twice as hard if you are stupid.” I haven’t heard of a more fitting description for what Mr. Cheney and co. have got themselves into.

The most important element in making a good documentary is access: the willingness of the characters to work with the filmmaker, the filmmaker’s knowledge of the subject matter and his/her freedom to work with the subjects. With good access, you have the makings of a good documentary – but when an important surprising event happens while you are shooting, then you have a great film. It is to Chavez’s credit that he gave such amazing access to Bartley and O'Brian to follow him around in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. But what makes the film truly great is the filmmakers’ presence at the time of the coup attempt against Chavez, and their ability to integrate the coup seamlessly into the story. Funnily enough, the real villains of the film are the same as in Dr. Strangelove and The Green Berets. You know who I mean…

Tenancy by Ebrahim Mokhtari and Keyvan Kiani

Access is what Ebrahim Mokhtari had in abundance when he made Tenancy. Master of Iranian cinema verité Mokhtari had to spend several weeks with the subjects of his documentary (about housing problems in Iran) before gaining their trust. Watching Tenancy in an amateur filmmakers’ club when I was 15 was a revelation to me. Watching people and recording their lives was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. The images of an old woman waiting to be evicted from her house are some of the most memorable images ever put on film. As in many of the best documentaries, the camera in Tenancy seems absent, although you can feel the director’s presence. As a viewer, you can guess how Mokhtari feels about the tenants, the landlords and the Iranian police, but he allows the audience to make their own judgements of events in the film, while asserting his own ideas through his invisible camera.

Not that I have any problems with filmmakers who openly make judgements about their subjects. That’s why I chose two films by Lindsay Anderson: O Dreamland and Every Day Except Christmas. In the first, Anderson shows his contempt for English working class culture by focusing on an amusement park. But in the second – as if wanting to make amends – he shows his affection for the working class itself by portraying twelve hours in the life of workers at Covent Garden market in London. While the films offer two contrasting views of the working class in post-war England, they are really two parts of the same film. This is why I love Lindsay Anderson and have been fascinated by him since I saw his films for the first time in a Tehran cinema in my teens. While Anderson was a progressive thinker and deep believer in the goodness of mankind, he was also a confused intellectual who didn’t shy away from making contradictory remarks at different stages in his life. Lindsay Anderson was a true original. To me, the most important aspect of Anderson’s theories is that he gave living and thinking as much emphasis as making films. Most of what we see around us today is the result of an incestuous relationship between artists and the ideas and creations of other artists before them. As a true artist, Anderson lived his life, came up with solutions, wrote manifestos and made films in the meantime.

Today, some people talk about the end of cinema in the same way Fukuyama talked about the end of history a few years ago. But in the 1930s, cinema was not only recording and enriching history, but also making history. Very few artists have made history like Leni Riefenstahl, a truly Nazi artist. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels scripted The Eternal Jew, a series of virulent Nazi stereotypes of Jewish people which had been published in Nazi propaganda rags for years. The film was a bomb even in Nazi Germany. But Riefenstahl painted a picture of Nazism that not even Hitler himself could have made up. Riefenstahl and architect Albert Speer are possibly the two most dangerous Nazis of all time. They were geniuses from outside of the system, who sold their souls to the devil. Any imbecile with an evil mind could retort the rhetoric of Goebbels and carry out the criminal deeds of Eichmann, but Riefenstahl’s genius could not be copied or imitated. This is why Hitler loved Riefenstahl. In Olympia, a film supposedly about the 1936 Olympics, Riefenstahl describes Nazism more mischievously than anyone else. It creates a Nazi myth with images of the human body which derive directly from a fake German mythology the Nazis were trying to propagate at the time. I feel guilty about including Olympia in my top ten. But I have – because it is one of the most brilliantly executed films ever made.

The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophüls

While access to characters and events can result in a great documentary, Marcel Ophüls shows us that searching for the truth in documentaries can be equally powerful. I wanted to see The Sorrow and the Pity, about the French town of Clermont-Ferrand under German occupation during World War II, after I saw Woody Allen and Marshall McLuhan going to see it in Annie Hall. But it was difficult to see anything about the Jewish Holocaust in the Iran of my youth (and it is not much better now). So I had to wait until I left Iran and saw the film in Canada. The Sorrow and the Pity was a revelation to me because of its irreverent approach towards accepting common knowledge of history as fact. Ophüls shattered the stone into which the history of occupied France was seemingly set. I wish I had a chance to do what Ophüls did with certain events in Iranian history (no, I’m not stupid enough to touch “those” events). The Sorrow and the Pity also is a film dear to me because it encouraged me to make my first film, The Voyage of the Saint Louis, about Canadian and American reactions to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.

Finally, a film that I watch every couple of months or so, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, about the last concert by The Band. What can I say? Genius musicians and a genius director. How could mortal human beings write such music, and how could another mortal film it so brilliantly? The result is a miracle captured on film. Thank you Ally Derks for giving me the chance to compile a list. And thank you again Ally for enabling me to watch The Last Waltz again, on the big screen.

Maziar Bahari's Top 10 consisted of eleven films:

  1. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) by Stanley Kubrick
  2. Every Day Except Christmas (1957) by Lindsay Anderson
  3. Green Berets (1968) by Ray Kellogg and John Wayne
  4. The Last Waltz (1978) by Martin Scorsese
  5. The Night It Rained (1967) by Kamran Shirdel
  6. O Dreamland (1953) by Lindsay Anderson
  7. Olympia 1. Teil - Fest der Völker (1938) by Leni Riefenstahl
  8. Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed (1979) by Donald Brittain
  9. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003) by Donnacha O'Briain and Kim Bartley
  10. Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) by Marcel Ophüls
  11. Tenancy (1982) by Ebrahim Mokhtari and Keyvan Kiani

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