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Makhmalbaf on Salam Cinema

by Matthew Holtmeier

In a joint invitation between the Department of Social Anthropology, the Centre for Film Studies and the Institute for Iranian Studies, acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf visited the University of St Andrews 24 June 2010.

The event involved a screening of Salam Cinema, followed by a Q&A session and a more intimate reception afterward. During these, Makhmalbaf discussed the practical aspects of filmmaking, and the role of cinema and culture in shaping political events, which is particularly important given his prominence in the Green Movement in Iran.

Salam Cinema, which Makhmalbaf made in 1994, follows the auditions of ordinary Iranian citizens who show up in response to an ad placed in the newspapers announcing open auditions for Makhmalbaf’s latest film. Makhmalbaf, played by himself, teases out the participants’ desire to be involved in cinema by asking why they want be cast in his film – the usual response being a declaration of love for cinema.

Though Salam Cinema is an accessible film for any audience, Makhmalbaf explained the political undertones for the viewers at St Andrews. Often during the film, Makhmalbaf would ask the would-be actors to cry on command, which mimicked the post-Revolutionary Iranian government’s request for its citizens to cry/purge themselves in order to become closer to God.

In a brief introduction to the film and afterwards during the Q&A, the director explained that he wanted to counter the image of Iran as being home of only religious fanatics. Instead, he wanted to show that most citizens in Iran are ordinary people, just like anywhere else in the world. This is perhaps most clearly evidenced when the would-be actors do not immediately burst into tears, filled with fervent passion, but react just about how I imagine most of us would: an awkward, failed attempt at crying on demand from a non-professional.

Later, the director illustrated the more nuanced side of his politics. Before the 1979 Revolution, Makhmalbaf was jailed by the Pahlavi regime. After being freed during the revolution, he went into politics for six months, but decided that he could do more good for the Iranian people working with culture, and so he became a filmmaker.

Makhmalbaf explained that he believes political reform is not enough to solve the problems of a country, but rather that the peoples’ minds must change first, and political reform will follow. This was clearly seen in Salam Cinema, with the director’s explanation that he wanted to change how the international community viewed the people of Iran.

Makhmalbaf was an extremely generous guest, speaking with a large group of excited cinephiles at the reception, and even taking the time to speak one-on-one with anyone interested. I was able to chat with Makhmalbaf about my favorite film of his, Marriage of the Blessed. He excitedly explained the technical details of how he portrayed the protagonists’ insanity through quick cuts and changing makeup. As he tells it, during this phase of the film, the protagonists’ makeup actually changes subtly between each shot. I’m not sure I noticed that on previous viewings, which gives me good reason to go back and re-watch one of my favorites!

Passionate about the craft of filmmaking and justice for people around the world, Makhmalbaf was an energetic and energizing speaker. He left any aspiring filmmakers with this bit of advice – and I think this applies to other aspects of the study of film as well – you can learn the technical side of filmmaking in a three-month course, and with digital filmmaking the equipment is more accessible than ever, but good films come from being dedicated to the subject of the film, to living the subject of the film.

It seems then that Makhmalbaf’s past experience, from being a political prisoner before the Revolution, to acting today as a spokesperson of the Green Movement, is integral to the efficacy of his films as they endeavor to change the way people think and to prompt positive social change.

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