The 35th Moscow Film Film Festival, June 20-29, brought in Mohsen Makhmalbaf as President of the Main Competition Jury, in conjunction with the publication in Russia of a 350-page book on the filmmaking Makhmalbaf family by the respected critic, Guinara Abokeyeva. In return, the Moscow Fest was offered, for its Russian premiere, the new film, The Gardener, a collaboration of Makhmalbaf with his filmmaker son, Maysam. The setting for this kind-of-documentary feature is a spot many consider paradise on earth: the gorgeous, palatial Baha’i gardens at the Baha’i religion’s world center in Haifa, Israel. For the normal tourist (I was one of these in 2012), a visit there is a tantalizing tease, as you are kept on a tight path high above the flowers, trees, greenery. Makhmalbaf got special permission to film below and up close. Where only Baha’i members may roam. The result is the most radiant imagery in a Makhmalbaf film since the bright carpets of the nomadic Ghashghai people in the 1996 Gabbeh. It’s God in Heaven meets 1950s MGM Technicolor: beauty, beauty, beauty. What Adam and Eve saw before Eve bit into the apple. The strategy of the film is simple: both father and son, Mohsen and Maysam, arrive in the garden with a video camera, to film what interests them. A third camera films the filmmakers. The day starts with an aesthetic debate, a predictable one along generational lines. Maysam, in his mid-20s, wishes they were filming with a Hollywood star like Sean Penn. Then an audience might actually attend this film. He also tires quickly of shooting long takes from a tripod. His friends, Maysam declares, would never have the patience to watch. So he races off and shoots his modern way, leaping about with the camera, doing short take from different spots — and filming a beautiful young woman explaining her love of the Baha’i faith. Meanwhile, Mohsem affirms his lifetime commitment to Neorealism, saying that any person at all is worthy of a film. And he locates his simple protagonist: the gardener in the Edenic garden, a young man who has travelled from faraway Papua, New Guinea, to work here as avolunteer. As he plants flowers, slowly, slowly, Mohsem observes him, films him, and records his fervent explanation of why he is a Baha’i member.
Then Mohsem switches to other Baha’i volunteers, an African-American woman and an Asian-American man, and a man who survived the holocaust in Rwanda. Conventional, old-fashioned talking heads, each person giving a little autobiography and then their reasons for embracing Baha’i. From Makmahlbaf’s biography, you can understand why he was so obsessed with traveling to Israel and looking at the Baha’i religion up close. Like Bahaullah, the 19th century founder of Baha’i, the filmmaker was a political prisoner, after the 1979 revolution in Iran, and, like Bahuallah, his life has been that of an exile from his country. More important, this religion in its 170 years of existence has never fought a war against a religious enemy. In fact, it endorses all religions as having validity. What a change from Iran and a hundred other warmongering countries! But does all this pacifism and goodness make for a good film? Actually, it becomes quite tedious seeing one Baha’i member after another giving the same speech about the “oneness” of the religion, especially with the impressed filmmaker never challenging any of the statements. Those who are skeptical, who wonder if there is something of a cult behind this religion, will be grateful when Maysam reenters the film, and accuses his dad, who calls himself an agnostic, of actually making a religious movie. It’s great to take a break from the tranquillity of the Baha’i gardens, as Maysam travels to noisy, contentious Jerusalem, where, as he films Moslems, Jews, and Christians all squabbling over the same piece of land, he asserts his belief that all religions cause wars. He has a special question for his own Iran. He asks, if Iran bombs Israel, what happens to the holier-than-holy mosque in Jerusalem, where Mohammed appeared? Will that also be blown away? It becomes obvious that the arguments between the Makmahlbaf father and son are really minor ones. They are both pacifist thinkers who wish for a better Iran, a truly ecumenical world. At the end of the film, back in Haifa, they walk out of the garden together, cameras in hand, family and friends.
© FIPRESCI 2013