Mohsen Makhmalbaf is fidgeting in his seat. “In the cinema,” he says, “I tend to drive people next to me insane. I can’t sit on my ass. I have to constantly move.” Over lunch, in this top-floor restaurant overlooking St Paul’s cathedral in London, he changes seats twice.
Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most prominent directors, is restless by nature. Constantly thinking of new ideas, endlessly curious about the world, he has made a film and written a book every year since 1981. In his home by the Thames, he has a stack of two dozen scripts on standby. He is by no means short of story ideas.
His latest film, The President, and is out in the UK next week, is a dark satire following the life of a despot and his six-year-old grandson as they flee from revolutionaries. Disguising himself as a street musician, the president, played by Misha Gomiashvilli, begins to learn about the people he oppressed.
Although it was shot in Georgia, the film is meant to depict an unnamed country: this dictator could come from any part of the world. As Makhmalbaf says: “You can see Iraq, Libya, Syria, Central Asia and even Cuba in it.” The idea came to Makhmalbaf nine years ago when he was visiting the ruins of Darul Aman palace outside Kabul, once the home of former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah. “I initially based the script on Najibullah,” he says, “but after the Arab spring, I rewrote it many times, with help from my wife, deleting any signs that could reveal which country it was.”
“At last we had a president – but is it clear whether their president came to power with or without an election? He could be either a shah or a president. Was he overthrown by a revolution or a military coup? It could be both. You could see Iraq’s in him, or Libya’s . You could also see Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or even our own former Shah of Iran and his wife Farah Pahlavi, who fled the country before the revolution.”
Makhmalbaf, 58, has first-hand experience of revolution. As a 15-year-old, he set up his own guerrilla-style political group to overthrow the Shah. Jailed at 17 for attempting to stab a soldier, he was only released five years later when the Shah fled during the 1979 revolution. In prison, he shared cells with some of Iran’s most famous revolutionaries; some became leaders, others were hanged as traitors.
After the revolution, Makhmalbaf quit politics and began a career as a writer and film-maker. Three decades later, however, he became a high-profile supporter of Iran’s pro-reform Green movement, which took to the streets in 2009 to protest at the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is now persona non grata in , where his works are banned.
Having followed the failure of the Arab spring, and with his own Iranian experiences in mind, Makhmalbaf thought a lot about ordinary people’s role in dictatorships when making The President. “Look at Syria now,” he says. “President Bashar al-Assad is a bad guy, but are the revolutionaries good? No, some are even worse than him. It’s the same situation with Gaddafi: he was bad but look at the anarchists in power now. In films, dictators are often depicted as bad guys while the people are only seen as oppressed. I wanted to show that the people share the blame, too, because they’re silent. The history of dictatorship is the history of people’s silence. It’s often not dictatorship of power – it’s dictatorship of fear.”
Like most of Makhmalbaf’s films, The President was a family affair: his son Maysam edited the sound, his wife Marzieh co-wrote the script, and their younger daughter Hana edited. It comes in the wake of such internationally acclaimed works as Gabbeh (1995) and The Cyclist (1987). He is perhaps best known for (2001), about an Afghan journalist who leaves her new home in Canada to rescue her suicidal little sister from the country where they grew up.
Makhmalbaf says he doesn’t want to be confined to any particular style. “I don’t want to be a prisoner of my own signature,” he says. “Each of my new films is a revolt against the previous one.” And he has now filmed in 10 countries, including , Pakistan, Tajikistan, India, Italy and even Israel (for 2012’s The Gardener), a place that remains a taboo subject in his homeland. That last film sees a father and a son debating their views on religion.
“Everywhere I go,” Makhmalbaf says, “human beings are the same. They fall in love in the same way, they become sorrowful in the same way, they have the same fears of death, illness, solitude. Cinema makes us united. I think about human beings and I make films about human beings. I may come from Iran but, like millions who are refugees, I am also a refugee – a refugee of cinema.”
Like many refugees, his life has been full of danger. While filming in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, he twice came close to death – first when someone tried to poison him, then in a grenade attack that killed one person on his film set and wounded 20 others. “When I went to prison,” he says, “I realised that people there were themselves all little dictators without power. We thought if the Shah went away, we would have democracy, but each of us had a little Shah in our own minds.”
Why does he think pro-democracy movements have failed in Iran and other places such as Afghanistan and Latin America? “Democracies are not solely based on popular revolt: we need cultural changes first. We’ve never had a Renaissance [in the Middle East], we never doubted our history, we never doubted our social values, and you can’t build democracy without doubting first. Another important reason is the west. The west is democracy within, dictatorship outside. Look at America’s role in Afghanistan – how can you learn democracy from the west?”
In the middle of this mayhem, what’s the artists’s role? “An artist is not an artist without three things,” he says. “Honesty, profoundness and responsibility.” The last of these he can even quantify: “Watching a film takes about an hour and a half. You can watch 10 films a day if you don’t do anything else and just sleep, so if someone lived 80 years, that person could watch 292,000 films. So when a film has 300,000 viewers, that is equal to a life of a human being. If another film has three million viewers, that’s equal to the lives of 10 people.” He pauses then adds: “And if a Hollywood production is rubbish, then they’ve murdered 100 people.”
With widespread censorship since 1979, why has Iranian cinema flourished at home and abroad? “Two years before the revolution, our cinema industry came to a halt as it became unable to compete with Hollywood. Then, when we made the revolution, it was a revolution without cinema – people burned cinemas. But after a while there was a reconciliation: the mosque reconciled with cinema, people reconciled with cinema. And cinema played a huge role later in Iran’s reform movement. Millions of people went to see my films. State TV was full of lies, so people went to cinemas to see the truth.”
And abroad? “Outside the country, the world was curious about an Iran behind closed doors. And our films were different. They weren’t like Hollywood, full of violence – or like European films, full of despair. Our films were about hope.”