Ebrahim Golestan

Films of Ebrahim Golestan:

"The Brick and the Mirror" - Ebrahim Golestan (1965)

Ebrahim Golestan’s remarkable first dramatic feature, The Brick and the Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, 1965), is sometimes seen as a groundbreaking early work of modern Iranian cinema.  But I would go further and say it stands as one of the great films on any world stage. It certainly deserves a wider viewing audience if a digitally restored version of the print can be made available.

Golestan, born in 1922, established himself early on as a writer, translator, photographer, and documentary filmmaker [1,2]. He set up his own film production company in 1956, and in 1958 met and hired the brilliant young woman poet Forough Farrokhzad, who aspired to be a filmmaker and with whom he began a romantic and working partnership that continued until her tragic death nine years later [3].  They collaborated on her mesmerizing documentary film, The House is Black (Khaneh Syah Ast, 1962) and soon began working together on Golestan’s initial feature film, The Brick and the Mirror, in 1963.  They started production shooting with only the first nightmarish scene in script form, and they improvised the rest of the narrative as they went along [4]. Given some of the film’s interesting personal thematic elements, I suspect that Farrokzhad’s’ contributions to the story were significant [5].

The story of the film concerns a taxi driver in Tehran who discovers that a woman passenger (played by Forough Farrokhzad) has left a small baby in the backseat of his cab.  After his frantic attempts to track down the woman fail, he is faced with the problem of what to do with the child.  The rest of the film is concerned with his efforts to do the right thing and at the same time stay out of trouble.

The loneliness of the nocturnal urban milieu evoked in the early scenes of the film may remind some viewers of past American movies set in the “asphalt jungle”, and indeed Tehran was a rapidly growing metropolis going through the same depersonalization processes that had beset cities the world over. Given the city’s underdeveloped mass transit facilities at the time, the streets were crowded with cars and taxis, and being a taxidriver there was a reasonably lucrative, if exhausting, way for an uneducated man to make a living. But taxi drivers were also perpetual witnesses to the stress and alienation of the big city.

Perhaps from considerations along these lines, some reviewers see The Brick and the Mirror as being concerned with social issues in pre-revolutionary Iran [1].  But for me the film’s themes run more along existentialist lines, and a more interesting comparison would be to Taxi Driver (1976).  In fact given that both Taxi Driver’s director, Martin Scorcese, and its scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, were graduates of famous academic film schools, I wonder if they had been exposed to and influenced by The Brick and the Mirror prior to the making of their film.

In some ways, though, The Brick and the Mirror concerns more universal aspects of existence even than Taxi Driver, and to me it had perhaps greater affinities with Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). Both L’Avventura and The Brick and the Mirror are primarily concerned with love and what it means to love. And the ways they explore and engage us concerning this topic are what makes them both great films.

A key aspect to any love concerns commitment: to what extent is one going to permanently lock down his or her life and devote it to one person. Given the ephemerality of most love relationships, young people are understandably cautious on this score.  But commitment is not just something concerned with love; it is a major issue with respect to all of modern life.  Given the relatively higher degree of autonomy that modern people have, they need to consider their options carefully at all times.  Keeping one’s options open for as long as possible means keeping the door open to making a decision later in the day, when more information is available to make the right decision.  So delaying commitment is a recommended strategy in connection with many modern activities. In particular, the strategy of delaying commitment is a recognized optimal policy in the field of software engineering [6].  If we can build a software module with a minimally prescribed interface; then we are only committed to the interface, and we can change the module’s internals further on down the line.  Of course we can delay commitment, but we cannot avoid it forever.  At some point we must seize the opportunity and engage.

So young men, in particular, are often committed to delaying commitment, and this goes for romantic relationships as well as everything else in life.  The idea is to keep your options open and make sure that you do not get locked into a disastrous situation. Being a taxidriver is a perfect occupation along these lines.  The driver just takes on short transport jobs and is only committed for the term of that ride.  This way, he doesn’t get locked into an unbearable position.  This is the world view of the main character, Hashem, in The Brick and the Mirror.

The story of the film is told in ten scenes that can be grouped into four acts.  Acts 1 and 3 focus on the protagonist Hashem’s concerns about delaying commitment.  Acts 2 and 4, on the other hand, emphasize, by means of Hashem’s interactions with his girlfriend Taji, the importance of seizing the opportunity, which is the countervailing option to delaying the commitment.

1.  Hashem in the Night with an Unwanted Bundle

In the opening atmospheric night scene the taxidriver Hashem (played by Zackaria Hashemi) takes a woman wearing a chador (a full veil – many middle class women did not wear the chador at this time in Iran) to a dark urban area and drops her off.  After she disappears into the night, he realizes that the woman left a baby in the backseat of his cab.  He runs after her with the baby and comes upon an abandoned building project, but he cannot find her.   Instead he only encounters a couple of lost souls and a forsaken woman who seems to be on the edge of madness.

Not knowing what to do with the abandoned baby, Hashem visits his customary evening hangout, a local nightclub, where his usual drinking companions are gathered. This gang of Damon Runyonesque characters immediately offers him their views on what to do: disengage. They swaggeringly tell him the whole thing is likely to be a trap, and if he tries to find the baby’s mother, he will only get into trouble. One young pal, with a more intellectual bent, waxes eloquently on the virtues of concealing the truth with lies.  All in all, they are telling him to avoid commitment and to keep his options open.

So Hashem takes the baby to the police station, but the officers there offer him no support.  They are only committed to doing the minimal as defined by the law.  Doing the “right thing” is not their concern, it is only a matter of identifying and punishing who is guilty.

2.  Hashem with Taji
Coming out of the police station and still carrying the baby, Hashem meets his girlfriend Taji (Taji Ahmadi), who had been briefly seen earlier at the nightclub.  They argue about what to do with the baby, until Hashem finally accepts that she can come over to his flat for the evening and help him look after the baby.

The 32-minute scene in Hashem’s one-room apartment is beautifully done – it is shot mostly from a low angle and is a film highlight.  Here the story focusses on Taji’s compassionate engagement with the baby and with Hashem, and Taji Ahmadi’s performance in the role is beautiful.  Taji emerges as the narrative counterweight to Hashem and becomes an equal protagonist.  Hashem loves Taji, but it only for the present moment; there is no commitment for tomorrow.  He has too many practical concerns to worry about: his limited funds, the always-watchful and intrusive neighbors, and the dangers lurking around the next corner.  For her part, Taji loves Hashem, but for her it is different – it is all the way.  She wants to cast her fate to a life with him.  And she feels the baby offers them a heaven-sent opportunity to engage together deeply with life.

There is a beautiful two-minute shot of Taji, with Hashem’s help, attending to the baby.  Then there is an extended scene of the two of them in bed in the dark – wonderfully performed and unusual in Iranian cinema. Taji later tells Hashem that the baby watched them making love and approved, thereby confirming and sealing their family union.

In the morning Hashem is shown self-absorbedly doing his daily bodybuilding exercises by swinging traditional meel weights.  He then goes out with the baby, telling Taji not to go out of the apartment alone during daylight, when nosey neighbors might see her and draw dark conclusions. 

3.  Hashem at the Government Offices
Hashem takes the baby to a hospital, but they won’t accept her unless she is proven to have no identified parents. Like the police, they don’t want to engage with Hashem’s human problem; they already have too many problems with abandoned babies to deal with.  So he has to go to the government law offices and seek an affidavit verifying the baby’s parentless situation. 

At the government tribunal offices, there is an extended montage showing Hashem wandering from room to room looking for the right person to talk to.  He finally approaches a well-dressed and clearly lettered man filling out a form at a public writing stand, and he asks the man if he would write a letter for him.  It as at this point that Hashem is revealed to be functionally illiterate.  Hashem wants the man to write him a formal letter to the tribunal office requesting authority to adopt the baby. Being unmarried, he cannot mention Taji in the application letter, and so he has to ask if he can adopt the baby on his own.  Anyway, momentarily at least, he seems to have succumbed to Taji’s wishes.

However, the lettered man dismisses Hashem’s plans as foolhardy. Raising a baby is only trouble, he tells him, and it will diminish his freedom. Again, as in Act 1, Hashem gets a strong warning to avoid commitment.

4.  Hashem Returns to Taji

When Hashem returns to his flat, Taji tells him that she loves him and asks about the baby.  To her horror, he tells her that he just dropped the baby off at an orphanage. There is then another beautifully shot and extended scene showing the two of them arguing about the baby. To Taji the baby represented all of her dreams of being with Hashem. The baby was to be the seed and the bond of their married life together. To Hashem the baby only meant trouble and was a problem that he had now solved.  He did not want bad things to happen. But this is where Taji’s point is eloquently made, when she tells him,
“If you let things happen to you, you’re lost.”
In other words, you have to take action.  And when he dismisses her wacky dream of the two of them raising the baby together, she tells him,
“To be awake you must dream.”
Since he has so rudely thrown away her beautiful dream, she tells him that he is only a coward and that they should break up.  She asks him to take her to the orphanage to see the baby.

At the 12-minute scene in the orphanage, Taji, on her own now, sees all the innocent babies there looking to play and be hugged, and she becomes increasingly despondent. This is an emotive and rueful scene suggesting life’s always hopeful beginnings and rarely fulfilled outcomes. 

Meanwhile outside on the city street, Hashem is alone and wanders past a TV store showing on the TV screens inside the same lettered man he had seen earlier in the day at the government offices.  But now the lettered man is shown expressing the homily that the good life necessarily entails doing one’s duty to help his (or her) fellow man.  Engage with your brothers, he is effectively saying. This is just the opposite of what he had told Hashem privately at the government offices. 

The closing shot shows Hashem driving away into the soulless urban darkness.

When The Brick and the Mirror was released, it was not well received by either the critics or the Iranian viewing public [2].  Nevertheless, I think it is an outstanding film.  The wide-screen mise-en-scene of Golestan and cinematographer Soleiman Minassian has both an expressionistic presentation and an existentialist feel to it.  One feels while watching it that one has been projected into a Dostoevskian world, where people eloquently, but naturalistically, make comments of philosophical resonance. There are a number of brilliantly conceived shots that linger in the memory. I have only mentioned some of them. For examples, there is one shot sequence during Hashem’s and Taji’s final argument in a narrow alley when they actually come to blows. But this is interrupted when they have to make way for a funeral procession of men carrying a coffin that brushes past them.  There is another, three-minute, shot of them arguing in the taxi at the end.  And, of course, the orphanage scene is haunting.

Unfortunately, the visual quality of the version of the film that I saw was not of acceptable quality, and the soundtrack was not in sync with the visuals, either.  It is my understanding, however, that the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center has produced a digitally-remastered version of the film [7].  Hopefully this version of The Brick and the Mirror will soon be made available  to a wider audience.

Incidentally, the title of The Brick and the Mirror is said to have been inspired by a line from the great 12th-13th century Iranian Sufi poet Attar [8]:
"What the old can see in a mudbrick,
 The young can see in a mirror.”
You can decide for yourself how that relates to what is told in this film.

  1. Jean-Baptiste de Vaulx, “Viewing Diary: Brick and Mirror (1965, Ebrahim Golestan)”, Cinescope, (1 April 2015).      
  2. Parviz Jahed, “Directors, Ebrahim Golestan”, Directory of World Cinema: Iran, Parviz Jahed (ed.), Intellect, Chicago. (2012). 
  3. See Michael Hillmann, A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry (1987), Three Continents Press, cited in “Films/Theater”, Forugh Farrokhzad, (http://www.forughfarrokhzad.org/filmstheatre/films.htm). 
  4. Ehsan Khoshbakht, “Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1963-64)”, Notes on Cinematograph, (8 July 2016).  
  5. Forough Farrokhzad had been married at the age of sixteen into an unsatisfactory household, and she had later obtained a divorce at the expense of leaving her small son with his father.  She felt anguish about this lost motherhood for the rest of her remaining life.
  6. Harold Thimbleby, “Delaying Commitment”, IEEE Software, Volume 5 Issue 3, May 1988, pp. 78-86.  
  7. “Khesht va Ayeneh (The Brick and the Mirror). 1965. Written and directed by Ebrahim Golestan”, Calendar, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, (24 November 2015).  
  8. Ebrahim Golestan, “The Brick and the Mirror / Selected Answers from Ebrahim Golestan”, Sounds, Images, (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky), (7 May 2007).  

Forough Farrokzhad

Films of by Forough Farrokhzad:

“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” - Mohammad Rasoulof (2013)

Mohammad Rasoulof’s searing drama Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Dast-neveshtehaa Nemisoozand, 2013) is not a political thriller, in the usual sense of that term, but is instead more of a sociopolitical nightmare – one that belongs in the same class as works by Orwell and Kafka.  Like the writings of those two authors, this film creates a haunting psychological tone and atmosphere that overhangs and dominates the proceedings depicted. Note however that in the case of Manuscripts Don’t Burn, it is not a matter of viewing some imagined dystopia, but instead a disturbing depiction of problems in present-day Iran.

In fact the current sociopolitical situation in Iran is an important backdrop to the recent films of both Mohammad Rasoulof and those of his friend and sometimes collaborator, Jafar Panahi.  Both Rasoulof and Panahi were arrested during the 2009 Iranian elections and given 6-year (later reduced to 1-year) prison sentences, 20-year bans from filmmaking, and prohibitions from speaking to the press and traveling abroad.  Nevertheless, they have so far defied the authorities and have managed to make films clandestinely.  In Rasoulof’s case he was able to spend some time outside Iran after the sentencing, and some of the indoor scenes of Manuscripts Don’t Burn were shot in Hamburg, Germany.  But since early 2014 he has had his passport confiscated by the Iranian authorities and cannot leave Iran [1].  His prison sentence is still threateningly on hold.

Basically, the Iranian government does not want Rasoulof to express his ideas publicly, and that is exactly what Manuscripts Don’t Burn is about: freedom of expression.  The story of the film follows the plight of some elderly intellectual writers whose works are always censored and who find themselves constantly under government surveillance.  One of these writers is suffering from some unspecified illness and would like to visit his daughter in France before he dies, but he cannot go, because he is under a travel ban (like Rasoulof).  So he has a plan to persuade the government to lift the ban.  He has prepared a manuscript describing in detail the government’s efforts in 1996 to kill 21 Iranian intellectuals traveling by bus to a conference in Armenia.  By a stroke of good fortune back then, the government’s treacherous scheme of having the bus driven over a mountain cliff failed, and the 21 writers survived but were warned to remain silent about the matter. The current manuscript’s writer was one of those survivors, and his secret (even to his fellow intellectual comrades) plan is to trade the manuscript to the government in return for an exit visa.

Actually, this 1996 attempt to murder 21 intellectuals by crashing their bus was indeed a real occurrence, and it is one of the documented events that were part of the notorious “Chain Murders” conducted by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (VAJA) to secretly murder political dissidents and intellectuals [2]. Rasoulof’s rehashing of this infamous event and making it a key feature of his story must undoubtedly be embarrassing to the Iranian government – a number of the Chain Murder perpetrators have never been held to account and still hold key governmental positions. In fact the entire film seems almost an instance of Rasoulof throwing down the gauntlet towards his despotic antagonists and exposing the perfidious nature of the VAJA ministry.  Because of these threatening political ramifications, then, all the people who worked on the production of Manuscripts Don’t Burn retained their anonymity.  The only screen credits listed on the film are just those showing Rasoulof as the writer, director and producer.

The secretive making of a film like this inside such a surveillance state must have been extremely difficult, and yet the production values of the film are very high.  This is not a quick-and-dirty production off a mobile phone camera.  The acting, presumably mostly by unknown actors, is subtle and convincing.  And the camera work and editing are very professional and smoothly done.  Even the sound editing is well performed. There are some instances of dialogue continuing after an actor has closed his mouth, and I am not sure if this is for intended effect or it was a case of Rasoulof finding it too difficult to reshoot a scene to include some added dialogue.  In any case these are not significant detractions from the film’s overall polished presentation.

The film’s story is told from multiple perspectives and features six principal characters:
  • The Intellectuals
    • Kasra, the writer of the hidden and sought-after manuscript.  He was formerly imprisoned for ten years and is now seeking permission to leave Iran.
    • Kian, a despairing poet
    • Forouzandeh, a wheel-chair-bound, but feisty, novelist
  •  The VAJA antagonists
    • The Commissioner.  He is a former dissident intellectual and prison-mate of Kasra.  He has since become a turncoat and is now the vindictive head of an Intelligence Ministry bureau and seeks to confiscate Kasra’s manuscript.
    • Khosrow, a low-level government hatchet-man
    • Morteza, a low-level government hatchet-man  
The story moves back and forth between these two groups, employing time shifts and slow disclosure along the way to keep the viewer somewhat in the dark and maintain the atmosphere of paranoia.  In fact the opening sequence shows Khosrow and Morteza involved in some kind of caper that foreshadows the closing scene of the film and only becomes clear at the end.

As the leisurely narrative unwinds over the rest of the opening one-third of the film, we see only the two VAJA hitmen, Khosrow and Morteza, and the two intellectuals Kian and Forouzandeh, all of whom seem to be real, ordinary people just trying to get on with their lives. Khosrow, for example, is married and has a seriously ill child who needs urgent hospitalization, for which the worried Khosrow doesn’t have the money.  Thus the viewer is quite likely to sympathize with Khosrow’s anxiety and distractedness.  It is only gradually that we learn that Khosrow is not only paid to murder people but that one of his early assignments was to be the driver of that bus back in 1996 that was supposed to be driven off the cliff and kill the 21 intellectuals inside.  (Note that the real driver of that bus was apparently identified as a person named “Khosrow Barati” [2]).

In the second third of the film, Kasra and The Commissioner come to the fore.  Both of them are pursuing what they believe is their moral duty, and yet they are both compromised individuals. The Commissioner, in particular, is a recreation of the darkly cold-blooded O’Brien from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He is shown to be now obsessively devoted to his relentless battle against  “NATO culture”. Meanwhile Khosrow and Morteza are driving up north and conveying a hooded and bound prisoner in the trunk of their car. One of the examples of slow disclosure in the film concerns the identity of this prisoner: he is introduced in the 13th minute of the film, but his identity is not revealed until 80 minutes later in the story.

It takes some time for us to learn that there were two extra (hard) copies of Kasra’s damning manuscript made, and they were individually secreted with Kasra’s friends Kian and Forouzandeh.  Thus those two latter individuals become targets of the government.  (Why there were no electronic copies made is not explained, but perhaps that was a product of the intellectuals’ paranoia over government electronic surveillance.)

So in the final third of the story, the narrative threads converge, and we come to its excruciatingly grisly finale. There is an agonizingly slow four-minute-long shot showing Khosrow nonchalantly raiding his poisoned victim’s fridge and making a sandwich for himself while he waits for his helpless quarry to die. And the closing sequence, connecting as it does with the film’s opening sequence, brought to my mind Panahi’s narrative arc in The Cycle (2000).

Note that while Kasra and The Commissioner are the inscrutable instigators of the key narrative machinery, it is really Kian and Khosrow who are at the psychological focus of the story.  They are down at the operational level and suffering the consequences of others’ schemes. This is what makes Rasoulof’s film unique. The focus on Kian and Khosrow shows them struggling to find their way in a corrupted social matrix. 

An effective social matrix, as I have commented in connection with my reviews of Rasoulof’s Head Wind (2008) and Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), is one that attends responsibly to the four pillars essential to a successful society, which I call RMDL:
  • (Human) Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc. They all relate to fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish.
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equality across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government. Such laws provide for regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good.
Some social advocates think that only Democracy is needed; once that is established, their story goes, then everything else will fix itself.  This was the position of the US Neocons who promoted the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  Others advocate only for free markets and that everything else is secondary.  This is the position of those supporting “Asian Values”, as represented by the views of past Singaporean President Lee Kuan Yew.  Still others, often coming from a religious background, insist only on the importance of a rigid notion of law and exclude consideration of R, M, and D. But in fact all four pillars of RMDL must be supported together in order to have a successful society, and the crucial one that is often neglected is R – human Rights.

Human rights have always been important, but their more explicit formulation that came to lie at the foundation of our modernist culture appeared in the 18th century during the rise of Rational Humanism (it is variously termed, but they are the principles behind the Enlightenment of the 18th century).  Rational Humanism asserted that human reason and human values, rather than so-called “revealed” texts, should be the foundation on which society is based.  This was an age when natural science was making tremendous strides concerning how we can understand the world and advance our welfare. Because of the verifiable success of natural science, many people nowadays think that Rational Humanism only relied on human reason. But Rational Humanism also relied on what we might say are heartfelt feelings [3].  That is, we need to consult the “god” within all of us rather than rely on the uncertain authority of ancient texts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a leading 18th century figure of Rational Humanism’s rise, called attention to this idea when he  asserted that his basis for moral action was not based on philosophical rules [4]:
"I do not derive these rules from the principles of the higher philosophy, I find them in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be right is right, what I feel to be wrong is wrong; conscience is the best casuist; and it is only when we haggle with conscience that we have recourse to the subtleties of argument."
Although out intuitive feelings can often lead us astray, there is now growing common agreement that certain heartfelt human rights – such as freedom of expression, assembly, movement, and privacy rights – are essential to all.  They are so essential, in fact, that I believe they must stand as one of the four pillars of RMDL.

There is nevertheless always a tension between heartfelt feelings (based on our consultation with the god inside us) and authoritative texts (whether from the exterior God or from external experts).  This tension exists inside most religions, too.  Thus within Sunni Islam there are two opposing tendencies: the Salafists, who are fundamentalists adhering to ancient texts, and the Sufis, who seek a mystical union with God.  The problem with fundamentalist adherence to ancient texts, though. is that they are still written by imperfect humans in a given context and are often outdated.  This means that they have to be interpreted by ecclesiastical “experts”, and this makes them subject to manipulation and exploitation. 

Thus during Manuscripts Don’t Burn Khosrow can be seen struggling internally with the moral rectitude of what he is doing.  He wonders if his son’s illness is the direct consequence of God’s punishment for his torturous murders.  Morteza blithely assures him, however, that the murders they are committing have been directly sanctioned by Sharia law.  This is how society’s foot soldiers can be manipulated into carrying out cruel actions and squashing human rights.  And this is how wars are justified, too. Indeed we can also see evidence of this kind of manipulation in the US today at the highest levels of government when torture has been permitted by manipulating the laws [5].  And nowadays torture can be justified, it seems, on utilitarian grounds alone according to the CIA [6].

So Khosrow, like everyone, has some humanity within him, but he does not have the strength to stand up to the text-based authoritarian social climate in which he lives. In fact human frailty is a key theme of Manuscripts Don’t Burn.  The intellectuals are not shown as heroic crusaders, either.  Instead they are despondent idealists who have all but given up any hopes of social justice.  And they are easily silenced and crushed by their unfeeling oppressors.  As mentioned, Khosrow and Morteza are also being manipulated by the system.  They freely exchange religious homilies, such as “Trust in God”, “God is Great”, and “God Willing”, and in so doing reflect their abandonment of any real moral self-reflection.  They are content to just have faith in God’s unknowable plans (as articulated, of course, by the scheming theocratic experts). This is how text-based justifications can be used to manipulate the infantry pawns to carry out unsavory acts.

And today in Western modernist societies there is arising another text-based movement, “Dataism”, which further threatens the Rational Humanism’s advocacy of heartfelt humanism [7]:
According to this view, the entire universe, including biological organisms, consists of particles governed by mechanistic rules of interaction; and with our always accelerating data-processing capabilities, we are now approaching the point where we can participate most effectively in this cosmic system by processing vast amounts of collected data. As Yuval Noah Harari has commented, “given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves”. [8]
Following Dataism to its logical conclusions would mean eventually abandoning our heartfelt considerations and relying on utilitarian-based computer correlations of “Big Data” to make all of our decisions, including those with moral implications.  Thus we now have modern scientists discovering from their data-mining how many animals are eaten by domestic cats (Felis catus) and concluding that they should all be annihilated (“euthanized”), because they are deemed to be an invasive species (not considering the much greater degree to which human beings are an invasive species) [9].  In this respect Kian, in Manuscripts Don’t Burn, was demoralized by how computer technology and “the Cloud” is distracting everyone, too, when he observed that today’s younger generation in Iran is mindlessly immersed in Facebook and Twitter postings and is unaware of how the data from these interactions can be used against them.  What we really need to do in the face of all these tendencies to subvert our humanity is at least to ensure freedom of expression and other human rights so that we can share our heartfelt views and arrive at consensuses concerning common issues.

Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn reveals how basic human rights can be so ruthlessly violated by a system in Iran that manipulates text-based religious accounts for its own exploitative continuance. The individuals shown in the film are not inherently evil, but instead reveal the banality and wider scope of evil. To guard against these difficulties, the preservation of human rights such as freedom of expression enables us generally to share our heartfelt views and arrive at an agreed-upon and mutually beneficial course of action. Restricting public expression and demanding fealty to prejudicially interpreted orthodox texts only sustains the exploiters. Rasoulof offers no solution as to how to ensure human rights, but he does reveal the extent of the problem facing us.  It is not just a matter of dealing with a few troublemakers; it is more a matter of correcting a system that denies freedom of expression and thereby enables the troublemakers to perpetuate their exclusive control.  His film, which has received many positive reviews [10,11], is not likely to be a box-office crowd-pleaser, and it has so far mostly only gained film festival exposure (of course like most all of Rasoulof’s films, it is banned in Iran).  Nevertheless, this is a penetrating and thought-provoking work that should be seen by everyone.
  1. Sune Engel Rasmussen, “An Iranian Dissident Returns Home”, Aljazeera America, (3 July 2014). 
  2. Muhammad Sahimi, “The Chain Murders: Killing Dissidents and Intellectuals, 1988-1998", TehranBureau, Frontline, PBS: Public Broadcasting System, (5 January 2011). 
  3. See the comments in my review of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). 
  4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or Education [1762], Barbara Foxley (trans.), New York: E.P. Dutton, (1921), Online Library of Liberty
  5. Jed S. Rakoff, “‘Terror’ and Everybody’s Rights”, The New York Review of Books, (29 September 2016). 
  6. Spencer Ackerman, “No Looking Back: the CIA Torture Report's Aftermath”, The Guardian, (11 September 2016). 
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ - Stanley Kubrick (1968)”, The Film Sufi, (30 August 2016). 
  8. Yuval Noah Harari, "Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will”, Financial Times, (26 August 2016).    
  9. Natalie Angier, “The Killer Cats Are Winning!”, The New York Review of Books, (29 September 2016). 
  10. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Mohammad Rasoulof, Review”, The Vore, (n.d.).
  11. Godfrey Cheshire, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, Rogerebert.com, (13 June 2014).