Iranian director-in-exile Mohsen Makhmalbaf has The President screening in the Gala Presentation section of this year’s BIFF, while Hassan Solhjou’s documentary Daddy’s School, about him and his filmmaking family, screens in Wide Angle.
In addition, the academic BIFF Forum will hold a session entitled “Mohsen Makhmalbaf And The Truth Of Cinema”, for which the director will deliver the keynote speech.
The President, which opened the Venice Film Festival in August, tells the story of a dictator ruling at the expense of his people’s misery and the perilous journey he embarks on with his grandson as they flee to safety after a coup d’état.
Initiated by Makhmalbaf Film House in London, the film is a Georgia-UK-France-Germany co-production with France’s BAC Films, the UK’s F&ME, Georgia’s 20 Steps Production and Germany’s Brümmer & Herzog Filmproduktion. BAC Films also handles the film’s distribution.
About The President - what made you want to do this film?
The script for The President was written and re-written several times, and the story went through several incarnations. But the initial spark came about eight years ago in Afghanistan, as I overlooked the city of Kabul from the rubble of the destroyed Darul Aman Palace.
At that time a thought suddenly entered my mind: What if, when a president was embracing their child and looking out their big palace window over “their” city, the President suddenly decided to entertain his child through a demonstration of absolute power: by turning all the lights, in the entire city, on and off, just for fun? And what if those lights that were shut off during the game suddenly did not turn back on? What happens then? So this imaginary scenario was the initial spark that later led to the story of The President.
Later on, in the heat of the Arab spring, I rewrote the script for The President. I learned a lot by following the news of the different revolutions taking place at the time. I witnessed how these dictators could singlehandedly create national tragedies, which resulted in their overthrow and a revolution. And I also saw how the violence of those revolutions created further new tragedies, and many times led to new forms of dictatorship, violence and tyranny.
Why did you decide to set the film in a fictional country?
The film echoes events that have taken place in many countries in the past, and are unfortunately likely to take place again in the future. There are some common threads that exist, no matter where the events take place. First there is a dictator, who behaves with impunity and oppresses the people of the country. This eventually leads to the collapse of the dictatorial regime. Then, once the regime has fallen, there is further violence involved during the revolution. And here again there are certain common consequences stemming from this revolutionary violence.
My goal was to craft a portrait of all of these elements into one single story: a story that could take place anywhere. And what I have also tried to do with this film is provide a dual insight into these kinds of hardships and tragedies. On the one hand the tragedy imposed on the people by those behind the dictatorships. And then on the other side, for those behind the violent revolutions, I wanted to show the blood and new tragedy that can occur as a result of the revolution.
There is furthermore a personal element to this choice, because after a decade of living in different countries, my heart no longer beats for only one country. Hearing tragic news from Syria affects me just as much as hearing of the events and tragedies that are taking place in Libya, Egypt, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. Or any other place in this world.
Dictators do not give up their power easily and without a fight. And people in search of democracy will unwillingly resort to violence to reach their goal. But soon after the moment of victory, they are often very soon faced with a new tragedy, caused by those same violent acts that represented a victory just a little while earlier.
So in a sense the violence that existed before the revolution is carried over even afterwards, in one way or another. And unfortunately this represents an ongoing cycle that many people and countries find themselves trapped in and unable to escape.
There can unfortunately be no end to this cycle, unless mankind is able to build a new and better culture to deal with this situation.
What I hope is that making this film can be a small step and a hope for building this new culture.
Could you tell us about the cast and how you found and worked with them? To begin with, what was it like working with a child actor?
The President’s five-year-old innocent grandson can be seen as the innocence embedded in the tyrannical president himself, who nevertheless is still a human being. Along with all the bad things he has done, we cannot forget that he was himself an innocent kid, one day long ago.
What also accompanies this is the idea of regret. As the grandson witnesses one tragedy after another, he constantly questions his grandfather about the horrors he is seeing. Answering these questions is something that is shameful for the president, given his responsibility. But facing his grandson’s questions is also what brings the president back to his own humanity.
To work with children in general, and in particular for a role like this, is very difficult. It requires a lot of patience. In fact a child is not “at your disposal” in the way a professional actor is. It is instead you who has to be very flexible and deal with their emotions and moods. To find the right person for this challenging role we searched extensively, and managed to find a very good talent.
Then he was trained intensively over a period of two months to act in this role. Hana my younger daughter, as my first assistant director in this film, was in charge of training and leading the child.
There are also around 50 professional actors from Georgian cinema represented in this film. They have been chosen through casting during the pre-production of the film and I have been working and training with them to get them ready for their roles for around two months before the shooting started.
BIFF programmer Kim Ji-seok tells us you once shut down a production to feed starving people, went back after re-financing and then completed the shoot. You seem to work to your surroundings like no other filmmaker I’ve heard of. What are some of your memorable episodes?
For me cinema is a means to an end, not the end itself. In another words, cinema is a tool that allows me to try to change the world for a better place. I make films to be able to have an effect on the lives of my fellow human beings on this planet. That particular story that you mentioned relates to when I was making the film Kandahar on the border of Iran and Afghanistan.
There were many Afghan people who had fled from their country under the war during Taliban regime and were now dying out of hunger in the desert across the border. As a human being I could not say I am a filmmaker and I only shoot my film no matter what is happening around me. In that situation, it was more urgent and effective to aid these people by giving them food and shelter. So that is what my crew and I decided to do.
There are other situations where you are more effective by using other tools like cinema. Let me give you an example of one of my films, Afghan Alphabet. Around 700,000 Afghan children refugees live in Iran. These children were denied the right to go to school for a period of eight years, as they have entered Iran without a valid entry visa.
In fact, these are the children of those people who have had to run away from their country to avoid starvation and death to seek refuge in the neighboring country.
I along with my family brought the issue up by making the film Afghan Alphabet. By showing the film to the government of Iran, during Khatami presidency, we managed to change the law in favour of these innocent refugee children. And as a result the following year, the door of the Iranian schools were opened to half a million of these children.
Today, if I believe that cinema can change the world, it has its roots in these kinds of experiences. And if I make the film The President I am following the same goal.
Do you know yet what kind of release The President will be getting outside of festivals?
We have had a very good response from the media and the audience after the premiere of the film in Venice film festival. The film is being invited all over the world and the distributor of the film is planning to start the theatrical release from France in January.
With Daddy’s School – what was it like to be the subject of this documentary?
Prior to this film there had been a number of documentaries made on our family members’ films and our works. But Daddy’s School is a film very well focused on the Makhmalbaf Film School and its distinct method of training. The film shows the way we work as well as the training that has taken place in bringing up my family members as filmmakers.
Your wife as well as your three children are all directors and you all work together on many of the Makhmalbaf projects. How does that kind of close collaboration work?
When I make films, my family is there to help, learn and share in the experience. In the case of this film, my wife Marziyeh helped me write the script. Hana, my younger daughter, edited the film and was my first AD. Maysam, my son, was present all the way through and helped me in all aspects of bringing the project to fruition. It was Maysam who started producing the film two years ago, and he was also my assistant on the set, as well as handling the sound design for the film.
When any of them makes a film however, I am not much allowed on the set! They want to go their own way and take their own directions in terms of cinema. So even if they all gained experience working on my projects, their films are neither similar to mine nor to one another’s. Compare for instance The Blackboards and At Five In The Afternoon by Samira with The Day I Became A Woman or Stray Dogs by Marziyeh, or even Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame or Green Days by Hana.
You and your family seem to have a special relationship with Busan. Any particular memories and/or anything you are particularly looking forward to this year?
Busan International Film Festival today is known as the most important film festival in Asia. It is considered by many as the equivalent of the Cannes film festival in the Asian market. This could have not happened without a lot of hard work by its members over many years. The people behind the running of this festival, beside their professional skills in this industry, are great human beings. These people through their personal and festival activities have helped in the development of not only Korean cinema but also the entire world cinema. We love the Busan film festival because of all these people and the principle they stand for.
As you know my filmmaking family and I have attended Busan many times. I was once here as a jury member. Once the festival held a retrospective of our family’s work and we were given the very special honor of being dressed in Korean traditional costume.
Another time I was here as the Dean of the Asian Academy. A number of times I have been present in the festival with my films, and once I received the Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award from the festival. The other time I came here to Busan was to make a documentary about Mr Kim Dong-ho, founder and former director of BIFF, who is like a teacher and role model in my life.