Friday, July 4, 2014

Manuscripts Don't Burn (2014): Scathing on the Fly

Manuscripts Don't Burn (2014)
dir: Mohammad Rasoulof

SIFF 2014 Film #29

In 2011, Mohammad Rasolulof, an already accomplished director, was arrested and had a 20-year ban from making any films imposed on him by the Iranian government. In secret, Rasoulof broke that government-ban and made Manuscripts Don't Burn, a film which is an indictment of the Iranian government, and it's attempts at intellectual censorship. The end result is a harrowing indictment of not only censorship but also cultural manipulation and how the whole system is set up against everybody's best interest.

The main characters of Manuscripts are not the intellectuals, but a pair of Iranian government assassins who are chasing after a manuscript. The assassins aren't rich or even paid all that well, as one of the two assassins has a sick child who is trying to gain admission to a hospital, but he doesn't have the money to pay for the stay. The assassin is constantly calling their government bosses to try to get the finances transferred to his account so he can prove he can afford for his son to have whatever surgery is needed.

The manuscript is written by a wheelchair-bound intellectual poet who had written a book that was essentially an anti-government screed that had over 100 instances of censorship inflicted upon it. One of the major instances is a story about a group of poets on a bus trip to Armenia, which was supposed to be driven off a cliff in the middle of the night. They intervened and survived, but were warned to be silent about it. The uncensored manuscript is put to a small circle of intellectuals for safe keeping, and the Iranian government is trying to keep it repressed.

The saying of "Manuscripts don't burn" means, essentially, that while the government can censor all they want, they actually don't have the power to remove memories. Until they do. The assassins aren't just going to destroy the manuscripts, but destroy all of the memories of the manuscript from those who have read it, wrote it, and remember it. At this point in their career, murder and death are second nature to the assassins. They even delude themselves to the reasoning they kill, with the father of the sick child questioning whether he's actually doing a good service, or if he's just doing something more immoral.

While the general frame of Manuscripts Don't Burn is a traditional assassin story, the details and the government prescience adds a presence that otherwise would be absent in this rather slow and pondering execution of the usual story. The ponderings of religion and God, and the intersection of religion and government, duty and manipulation of the poor, plus the responsibilities of rebels to try to promote the truth in a lying government, makes Manuscripts more detailed and pointed than the usual generic stories we get.

Rasoulof filmed Manuscripts in secret, and even eliminated all names except his own from the credits. The cast and crew have gone unnamed in the movie in order to prevent them from legal action by the government. But, the secrecy shows. There are some questionable filming choices that seem more rudimentary than thought out, and the pacing is a little erratic even in its heavily plodding pace. However, given the circumstances, one can forgive those technical details over the thoughtful content within the film itself.

Manuscripts Don't Burn isn't an "enjoyable" experience. But, not all cinema should be enjoyable. They should be thought provoking, and Manuscripts Don't Burn has that in spades. Being an anti-government screed, Manuscripts is an important movie, even if it isn't technically amazing.

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