Disclosing State Violence from the View of a Low-level Perpetrator

in 66th Cannes Film Festival

by Youngmee Hwang

The 2006 German movie The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) depicts the story of a secret agent, Wiesler, conducting surveillance on a writer called Dreyman and his lover and famous actress, Christa, in the East Berlin of 1984. While watching and listening to their lives for days, Wiesler finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed and sympathizing with them. A similar movie to this, Manuscripts Don’t Burn approaches clandestine surveillance from a different angle. This movie’s approach is strongly tied to the director himself, since he is an Iranian dissident who had been jailed for his opposition to Iranian government surveillance.

The title borrows a much-quoted line from author Mikhail Bulgakov’s celebrated anti-Soviet satire, The Master and Margarita. It is frequently referenced by people who oppose government censorship. Using words about the censorship of writing in the film’s title is very meaningful.

Historically, there have always been failures or contradictions in any age or society. The power of art, which includes the art of film, stems from observing life through the essence of the age or of society; finding problems and leading the societal era in the right direction by embodying the issues addressed in art. This is the so-called duty of artists, who are often some of the most educated in their society. The movie shows a lot of courage to report on the current Iranian state’s flaws through film. It is a resistance movement that risks the lives of those involved, since the power of the Iranian government far overweighs the influence of artists. In spite of this, the reason audiences try to discover new things through or are amazed by the movie is that it is just too painful to watch the Iranian artists’ fight for justice.

This film shows Iranian censorship and the related violence from the view of a perpetrator. Prosecuting reality films generally progress in two ways; the other being by revealing the violence of the perpetrator from the victim’s subjective point of view. In this way, the offender is depicted as a man lost to virtue and unlike others.  This movie, however, exposes the shocking process of violence through a focus on evil people. Most of this film describes a day in the life of two low-level state enforcers, Khosrow and Morteza. They keep a watch on anti-establishment writers and subsequently kidnap, interrogate, even kill them while disguising their deaths as suicide. Sometimes they transport their victims in the trunk of a car, haul them to a mountain, tie their hands to a tree and commit horrible acts of violence. In one such bout of violence, they even torture a boy who was just passing by.  Using this window onto their lives, the film shows the difference between the characters of Khosrow and Morteza.

Morteza seems unaffected by the carrying out of his brutal orders, but Khosrow, the more central character, occasionally calls his wife to ask about his son in hospital. Once, Morteza caught a boy who witnessed their crime scene and wanted to kill him, but Khosrow set him free out of guilt. Khosrow is depicted as a fairly normal person who critically evaluates his behavior. On one occasion, in an attempt to soothe his conscience, he goes so far as to clean blood-stained blankets after committing yet another act of brutality. Low-level state enforcers usually monitor the dissident writer, Kasra, who has been placed under house arrest. The film portrays them wiretapping and watching Kasra’s house to let the audience understand how vulnerable and miserable his life has become by exposing his desperate acts of hiding his writings inside a frame and of him secretly reading a letter from his daughter.

In the end, they kill Kasra by putting poison in his mouth and anus to stage a suicide. After that, Khosow kills dissidents by abducting them to desolate places under bridges, where he stabs them in the belly, and suffocates them. He then walks away leisurely and blends in with the Tehran crowds as if nothing had happened. Featuring Khosrow inflicting horrible acts of injustice by order of the government launches a direct attack on Iranian state violence.

This movie draws attention to how cruel state violence can be and to what degree it can bring a simple mid-level operative to commit acts of violence. It also shows the world that the surveillance and torture of dissident writers is still happening in Iranian society. Rasoulof is bravely doing what he should as an artist from the elite. I suggest that his movie is very significant in terms of raising awareness about vital global issues in a very creative way because the audience is offered the point of view of mid-level commanders.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn richly deserved the FIPRESCI Prize awarded to it in the Un Certain Regard section at the 66th Cannes Film Festival.

Edited by Carmen Gray