Manuscript don’t burn is an Iranian film made in 2013, by the writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof. This political thriller is indisputably, controversial and important undertaking spanning the times of close doors of Iranian political regime. That’s why it’s significant to make outlays for the formal shortcomings of an unwieldy piece that awkwardly shoehorns its political message into a narrative package, a self-same la Costa-Gavras.
Interestingly the title is a quote from Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, subtly making a parallel between censorship in Iran and in Stalin’s Russia. That’s why seeing a film like Manuscripts Don’t Burn not only make it out of a nation like Iran, this is one such movie that depicts the piece of political revolution that needs to be discussed and reinforced. Mohammad Rasoulof, the director himself currently on bail in anticipation of a yearlong prison sentence and a 20 year ban from filmmaking due to illegal filming, comes this upsetting masterpiece and audaciously antagonistic nugget of Iranian political mayhem. It’s as much a slice of a political revolution as anything really close to a slice of cinema.
The setting of Manuscripts Don’t Burn may be painstakingly specific, but its themes are broad, perhaps even universal. How much are we willing to risk, sacrificing, for freedom of speech? Why does one act of violence seemingly begin a never ending chain? Though, the communication is so central and Rasoulof conveying it under such a difficult conditions, the film slightly transcends normal considerations. Manuscripts Don’t Burn demands to be seen as widely as possible, and has been a key exhibit at many international festivals. Normally, one might say that the film could benefit from trimming. Certainly, the film’s subject is censorship and the forcible repression of artists’ and other dissenting voice. This is one topic Rasoulof knows much about; since in 2010 he and fellow director Jafar Panahi were banned by the Iranian government from making films and given jail sentences. Rasoulof nevertheless managed to attend Cannes with his film. Like Panahi, Rasoulof has inventively managed to dodge the ban. He made this movie in closed doors as the story fictionalized expose of the Iranian government’s silencing of artists and intellectuals
In its conceptual best, around a decade long series of murders and disappearances that involved roughly 80 dissident artists, the film follows the story of a writer named Kasra who is working on a memoir that includes a story about him witnessing the attempted murder of 20 artists and intellectuals by a staged bus crash. Trying to see his daughter one last time, he cuts a deal with an official where he will give him a copy of the manuscript for the ability to leave the country. However, to save himself some wiggle room, he’s sent copies to two fellow artists, in what sounds like a relatively fool-proof plan. But not in Iran. Not with an omnipresent government. Not under oppression.
Conceivable and knowing the film based on actual events, besides steels us against our genre expectations that torture, intimidation, and censorship are forces that can be effectively withstood by anyone who truly believes in his cause. The writers continue to defy the government, but they have none of the brazen assurance we are used to seeing from protesters in any free democracy. There is an air of resignation about those opposing state sponsored oppression that is both chilling and heart breaking.
The story begins with a person named Khosrow in the press notes, but seemingly never on screen – finishing a job that involves the bloody death of parties unknown. Rasoulof illustrates the character of Khosrow by presenting his private life, issues like son’s health and his need of the money for the hospital treatment. We also meet a disabled writer, Fourouzadeh, who’s upset at having his latest work banned. The writer tells his fellow scribe friend, Kian that he intends to publish it privately. Another key character is a prominent newspaper editor who also has the job of intimidating and silencing writers who question the regime.
The film has considerable breadth showing Khosrow and his associate Morteza, who drive from Tehran to a Northern town with a man bound and gagged in the boot of their car. Their mission is to kill him and make it look like suicide; it’s only later that we discover he is none other than Kian. The intrigue revolves around a manuscript written by a third writer, Kasra, revealing a failed government plan to get twenty-one dissident artists killed in a coach crash – with Khosrow as the driver. The drama then unfolds in rather disturbing and graphic sequence in which Khosrow kills Fourouzadeh. It’s also implied that government goons like Morteza are prepared to kill children if they are inconvenient witnesses. No less provocatively, Rasoulof shows Khosrow excusing himself his crimes under cover of religious piety; while he worries that his son has become ill as divine punishment for his crimes, Khosrow protests that everything he’s done in the name of God.
While the film’s political content is arson of the subject, that builds slowly frontloading with strenuous description and longwinded discussions between the writers about the pros and cons of publishing their work published online. The three writers shown in the movie are the veterans, discuss about the perceived lack of political commitment in Iranian youth and new generation. In between the slow development and abrupt catastrophe- Rasoulof artfully reveals the connections between these three story lines. He employs long takes and aspires to a joyless, fly-blown realism like that of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘A Short Film About Killing’ (1988)’. In such a country, Rasoulof implies, there can be no heroes, or even villains, only victims. His style of movie making engage us the tight close-ups and a color palette limited to industrial grey, Rasoulof mordantly portrays a dire, hopeless environment, fitting for the cleft stick in which these intellectuals are rapted.
Unmoving in its artistic dimension- Rasoulof is able to deliver his mind and something a larger message to the global community and subject head-on with unflinching candor. The title ends pointing out that the crew members remain anonymous in the interests of their safety. Largely- Rasoulof has created something greater and more important than just a piece of cinema. Given in the boundary of the movie making in Iran- Manuscript’s Don’t Burn is inarguably one of the most important films you’ll view it seriously
- Produced and Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof
- Screenplay: Mohammad Rasoulof
- Initial release: November 1, 2013 (UK)
- Run time of 134 minutes
- Genre: Drama
- Country: Iran
- Language: Iranian