By Gautaman Bhaskaran
What began as a trickle of artistic defiance in Iran is now snowballing into a torrent. Last September, Iranian director Mohsen Makhbalbaf’s The President, playing at the Venice Film Festival, lambasted the cruelty of a central Asian republic dictatorship. The movie shows us how the strongman and his little grandson had to flee in disguise when the regime is overthrown in a coup.
The opening shots are absolutely fantastic: we see how the dictator displays his might and arrogance to the boy when he orders the lights in the city to be switched off and switched on repeatedly till they do not come on at all signalling the start of the coup!
The President is really not a satire. Rather, it is a brutal critique of an autocratic ruler, whose subjects do not have a single kind word for him. Disguised as a musician, he goes around his country talking to ordinary people — all of whom had suffered and suffered terribly. Obviously, they are all happy that the dictator is gone.
It does not need any prompting to understand that Makhmalbaf was actually referring to his native Iran — where artistic freedom has been so severely curbed that many directors and actors have gone away, and settled down outside their homeland, mostly in Europe.
Makhmalbaf, exiled from his homeland and now living in Britain, said in Venice, “Iran has strong art and cinema that will thrive no matter what the adversity is... There is hope for this cinema, more than for the life of the dictatorship in Iran. There is hope that one day we don’t have this regime, but we will have a good history of Iranian cinema.”
Makhmalbaf, who now holds a French passport, and who has reportedly survived four attempts by Iran’s regime to murder him, added that after 10 years in exile, “I don’t know where my homeland is… little by little I am less and less an Iranian, honestly.”
Films like Jafar Panahi’s (also Iranian) Taxi and some others made by Americans are also hitting the screens outside Iran, challenging the regime in Teheran. And when Taxi won the Golden Bear at Berlin in February, the slap of rebelliousness could not have been harder. What is more, Panahi made Taxi disguised as a driver, and with a camera placed on the dashboard, had recorded the conversations of his passengers as he drove along the streets of Teheran. A beautiful movie emerged. It was a victory all the way for Panahi.
The auteur has been under house arrest of sorts and been banned from making cinema till 2030. However, Taxi was his third film made clandestinely since the ban was enforced.
Others like Ana Lily Amirpo, an Iranian-American born in Britain, has offered a fresh picture of her motherland. Her movie, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, focusses on a trendy, murderous Iranian dressed in Islamic garb. The film unfolds in an imaginary Iranian town, has all its dialogues in Farsi and has been received enthusiastically in theatres outside Iran.
The long and short of all this is, cinema cannot be easily put down, and even someone like Amirpo, who belongs to the now generation, is livid at the way the moving medium has been shackled.
Manoel de Oliveira
Manoel de Oliveira was another helmer, a Portuguese, whose art had once remained in bonds for years.
I first saw the celebrated Oliveira in the Cannes of 1990s, when he was already into his mid-eighties. But then he could take on a Sumo wrestler, not necessarily in physical weight but in spirit and energy, which stayed with him till his last day on April 2. He died in Porto in Portugal aged 106 — undoubtedly the oldest moviemaker who made 50 films — the last, Gebo and the Shadow, being in 2012.
His movies competed at Cannes on five occasions, and the festival gave him an honorary Palm in 2008 for “blending aesthetic contemplation and technological innovations”.
During one of the several interviews I had with Oliveira, he quipped, “Do you know the secret of my youthfulness?” Perplexed, I shook my head to say no. He smiled, that utterly charming smile which must have got many hearts into a tizzy, and said: “I never let my brain sleep.” But then there was something else that must have kept him as smashingly agile as he always was — and I have never seen him in a wheel chair. He was always in the midst of young people, their youngness refreshing his mind and body.
It is a pity that Oliveira’s career bloomed only late in his life, although he began making films during the silent era. In the 1970s, when the dictatorial regime ended in his native Portugal, his moviemaking ability flowered. He was unable to make the kind of cinema he wanted to, because the repressive Antonio de Oliveira Salazar — who came to power in 1932 — frowned upon artistic liberty. It was only in the 1970s with the end of authoritarianism that Manoel really stepped behind the camera, and for the past 25 years, he was illustriously described as the oldest filmmaker in the world. And, he really made up for the lost time, and when others of his age were getting into their twilight of creativity, Oliveira was charged with unimaginable creative zeal.
Born in 1908 to a father who went on to build a hydroelectric plant, Manoel led a fascinatingly varied life as an athlete, a race-car driver and even a trapeze artist before taking the megaphone. His first movie was a short documentary, called Duro, Working River, which he made in 1931 about the bustle along a river in his hometown. After several documentaries, and a stint on his wife’s farm and vineyard, he made his first feature, Aniki-Bobo, in 1942, a children’s parable that is often seen as a forerunner to neorealism.
It was not easy to get his scripts approved by the State-run film commission, and so he could make only two movies between 1931 and 1970, and when Salazar was thrown out in 1974, Oliveira quickened his pace and started to put together all his ideas that had remained in gestation. Till about 1984, he made some great cinema — The Past and Present, Doomed Love, Benilde or the Virgin Mother and Francisca — and these films were based on plays or novels and in periods from the early 19th century to the 1970s. They all spoke about obsessive passion.
His last phase from 1990 to 2010 was his most prolific, and he made one movie every year — a testament to his vitality. He made films not just in Portuguese, but also in French and used internationally famous actors like Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. The Convent in 1995 had these two as leads and became the first movie of Oliveira’s to be released in the US.
Later, his obsession with history egged him to make films such as Word and Utopia, Christopher Columbus, Enigma and The Vain Glory of Command.
And, believe it or not, the curtain is yet to fall. There is one more movie of his that has not been shown. His Visit/Memories and Confessions — made in 1982 — is said to be about the house where he lived. But this, he had said, could be screened only after his death.
We are waiting to see that, maybe at Cannes. For, he was a favourite there.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran has been
writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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