“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).     

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