Rumi, a Persian mystic poet says in a poem,
“Truth is a mirror which fell on Earth from God’s hand and broke. Everyone picked up a piece and saw their own image in it and thought they had the truth. But truth was divided among them all"
History, multiple truths, documentary, fiction and poetry mix in “A Moment of Innocence” a deceptively simple film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf who is one of Iran’s best known film-makers. He is not just remarkable for his accomplishment in filmmaking but also for taking a metaphoric personal journey that spans from being a religious guerrilla to becoming a secular world-renowned director. He had not seen any films until the age of 21 due to a strict religious upbringing. He recalls his grandmother saying that whoever went to the movies would go to hell in the afterlife. After the 1979 revolution, he began his career as a self-taught ideological filmmaker, fully at the service of Islamic Republic. He refers to this period as his first phase of filmmaking. Understandably his films of the period are unremarkable.
In the second phase, disillusioned by the revolutionary regime’s failure in addressing the rampant poverty, his focus shifted to social justice and criticism of the regime from that perspective. It is in this period that he established himself as an auteur with films such as The Peddler (1986) and Marriage of the Blessed (1989). He refers to the third phase in his work as constituting cultural critique when he made some of his best films such as Salam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence. In this period, Makhmalbaf came to the realisation that more than any other factor, the problem on all sides of the political spectrum in Iran was absolutism. In contrast with his poetic vision Makhmalbaf highlighted the plurality of truth. The quoted poem at the start of my introduction is from a book by Makhmalbaf.
In “A Moment of Innocence” there is something far more significant than the specifics of biographical details of a famous real-life incidence. In 1975 as a 17-year-old member of an guerrilla organisation, Makhmalbaf tried unsuccessfully to seize a policeman's gun. Both the policeman and Makhmalbaf ended up wounded. Makhmalbaf was arrested and spent four years in jail, during which he was tortured by the secret police. Ironically the reworking of this revolutionary story in “A Moment of Innocence” was considered anti-revolutionary in Iran and the film was banned for two years.
This was partly to do with the prominence of Makhmalbaf as a public intellectual whose books and articles were read as widely as his films were seen. In fact, he has always been at the center of many contentious issues that have had an inevitable impact on his cinema. Perhaps an event in the reformist president Khatami’s election campaign in 1997 can reveal the major role Makhmalbaf played in Iran at the time of making “A moment of Innocence”. The campaigners for Khatami arranged an interview with Makhmalbaf, in which he called Khatami a “great man of culture”. Aware of the statement’s importance, they published it as, and I quote, the “last ball in their campaign cannon” the last week before the election.
Makhmalbaf’s continued involvement in Iranian politics has had grave consequences for him. In 2009, he was one of the leading figures of the Green Movement which threatened for a while to topple the Iranian regime. Makhmlbaf has since become a political exile here in London. Unfortunately though he is at the moment in Italy otherwise he would have been introducing “A Moment of innocence” himself.
In A Moment of Innocence there is a creative confusion, a quiet erosion of the dead certainties, that separates the real from the make-believe, and that is precisely the trademark of the best of the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. In the words of Hamid Dabashi, “When facts are constituted by history, then they ought to be reversed by art, re-constituted, re-negotiated, let loose to hunt for their alternatives, all in a creatively multi-focal thrust that no author or filmmaker, let alone a censorship official, can control”.
Throughout this beautiful film Makhmalbaf opens many doors to Iranian culture, society, and importantly to his own idealism and poetic views. Some doors, he leaves ajar, and it is for us, his audience, to open them and look beyond.