Manuscripts Don’t Burn

‘It’s really an exegesis on torture’ – MacDara Conroy on Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn

Torture comes in many different forms. There’s the obvious kind that the word brings to mind; those gruesome medieval methods, abuses of the body to inflict physical pain. But it’s abuses of the mind that are often far more effective, because we can’t see the psychic scars or the mental pain caused by intimidation, or emotional frustration, or sensory deprivation, or the slow, determined destruction of one’s identity. It’s a matter of subtraction over addition: it’s easy in the short term to inflict pain, to add injury to a person, but more cunning to play the long game, to take away that person’s hope and watch them wither away.

It’s the long game that Iran has been adept at playing against its opponents, both cultural and political, real and imaginary, since the ousting of the Shah. And it’s central to the work of dissident filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, whose spent his career navigating the vicissitudes of his country’s rulership to produce challenging cinema that highlights the grey areas – the joys, the pains, the contradictions, the absurdities – of life in Iran, not just for the classes most under the regime’s watchful eye but Iranian society in general. For this he has paid with his freedom; he’s currently in Tehran under a travel ban, barred from making films, and appealing a lengthy prison sentence for making ‘anti-government propaganda’.

Still, his work is still getting out there. His latest, clandestinely produced feature, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, is ostensibly a kind of spy thriller following the exploits of state-sponsored hitmen charged with eliminating a number of intellectuals, whose plan to bypass the state’s censorship barriers to publish their account of a past attempt on their lives poses a threat to, ahem, national security. That would put it in the same category as A Most Wanted Man, the chilly, grimly stylish John Le Carré adaptation that opens on the same day.

But it’s really an exegesis on torture. There’s the traditional methods – torture classic, if you will – making liberal use of ropes, blindfolds and plastic bags. But the long game is often preferable, as in the fate of one writer promised passage to family in Europe in exchange for his ‘dangerous’ manuscript, but left dangling for months till his mind finally cracks. And even those doing the dirty deed aren’t immune. For one assassin – a Peugeot-driving, anorak-wearing everyman, essentially a civil servant within an institutionalised oppression machine – there’s the torture of scrambling to cover the cost of surgery for his sickly child, constantly checking his bank balance at ATMs for money, his blood money, that’s always coming but never arriving.

Throughout, Rasoulof – through whose steely lens Tehran and its environs could be anywhere in central or eastern Europe, bringing its internal horrors closer to home – never lets us ignore the Orwellian, Kafkaesque waking nightmare that is life under the Iranian regime. At the same time, he constantly underlines the sheer futility of it all (it’s right there in the title, quoting Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, reflecting the notion that ideas can’t be quelled by destroying the papers they’re written on), not to mention the banality, perhaps summed up best by the film’s principal antagonist, a youthful, sharp-suited bureaucrat who censors newspapers by day and silences state opponents by night. A man whose sole purpose is undermined by the existence of this very film.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn opens at the IFI on Friday September 12th

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