Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Manuscripts Don’t Burn

Reviews - Manuscripts Don’t Burn

Manuscripts Don’t Burn

Reviewed By Vaughan Ames

Manuscripts Don’t Burn
Manuscripts Don’t Burn
Imagine yourself living in a country where even implying criticism of the state can lead you to prison or worse. This was where Mohammed Rasoulof found himself in the early part of this century. A maker of films, he had learnt the art of using symbolism to bring out problems in his country of Iran, without actually stating anything specific. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. Even though this was eventually commuted to one year, he was banned from making films for TWENTY years!

There was, then, a change of government and the new one at least superficially relaxed the rules a bit, but no-one dared risk anything; as Rasoulof says “What is harming us is not so much external censorship, it's that we are conditioned to self-censorship. Now, the government says, 'OK, guys, do whatever you want.' But people have internalized self-censorship to an extent where they are not even able to work anymore.”

Well Rasoulof decided to stop self-censoring and risk all. The result was "Manuscripts Don't Burn", which we saw last Sunday. Taking the bull by the horns, Rasoulof wrote, produced and directed a film in secret, defying his ban. The film is ABOUT censorship in Iran. No-one was too certain if they could get away with this, so Rasoulof is the only named person on the film – at the end a message comes on screen saying the other names were removed in their own defense.

A very brave step to take, then; was it worth it? A film can be as worthy as you want but it still has to be worth watching as a film. "Manuscripts Don't Burn" has had some success at festivals (including winning a Jury prize at Cannes in 2013) and great acclaim from the critics. I, for one, was expecting great things. I think it is fair to say the audience reaction was mixed at best here in Keswick. There was a low turnout to start with and a large divide in the final scoring (you get the chance to vote from 1 star to 5 stars) at the end.

Rasoulof took as a plot a true story: back in the 1980s, the then government was so fed up with the intellectuals arguing against them that they decided to kill them all by driving them off a cliff in a coach. This didn't work. In our film, one of the survivors has written an account of the event which a government agent is trying to find and destroy. The agent employs two killers to track down all copies of the manuscript and anyone who is hiding them.

The film uses an unusual technique to bring out the horror of the situation; it makes it all seem very normal and 'everyday'. The two killers talk about their own problems – one is very short of money and needs to get an operation for his son – and they are very indifferent to the suffering they are causing – they drive a car to the north of the country and then back with a man tied up and blindfolded in the boot; one casually lights a cigarette while he waits for a clothes peg he has put on a man's nose to slowly suffocate the victim.

This technique was enhanced by using very short focus for the majority of the film where the killers were involved, making these events seem very claustrophobic indeed. The downside of all this was that the 'action' was down played and the film did seem slow at times. As it neared the end though, I realised this was all very deliberate – to show us how awful living in this environment day after day would be. Our discussion in the pub afterwards was lively (!), and the film will certainly live with me for a long time.

Next weekend we have the excitement of the 16th Keswick Film Festival. 30 films from Thursday to Sunday should give everyone the chance to find at least one they like! There is even a free showing of "Into the Woods". Pick up a brochure and check out the ones you want to see.

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Keswick Film Club won the Best New Film Society at the British Federation Of Film Societies awards in 2000.

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