Mohsen Makmalbaf’s The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood, banned in Iran since 1990, gets its first release.
Suicide is Painlessby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Director Mohsen Makmalbaf now lives in exile in London, forced to leave Iran because of his support for the Green Revolution of 2009. He is a major figure, celebrated internationally for his socially and politically engaged, award-winning work over many years, films such as Kandahar, The Cyclist, Gabbeh and Hello Cinema.
This early film of his, The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood, made in 1990, had 37 minutes cut from its original negative by Iranian censors, who found it to be against the spirit of the Iranian revolution. The remaining 63 minutes were shown once in Iran but the film was still held to be against the purpose and objectives of the revolution because of its controversial content, and the negative was impounded. Last year, some parts of the original negative were rescued, smuggled out of Iran, and restored by Makmalbaf into this 63-minute film out of the original 100 minutes.
Though the film feels choppy and truncated, and some scenes are mute, having had their soundtrack permanently removed by the censors, the bones are still there. It’s in three sections – before, during and after the revolution – and it turns the personal stories of individuals into bold metaphors for the state of the nation.
Manuchehr Esmaili is an anthropology lecturer, Mr Alaghemand, an intellectual who tries to open his class’s minds to the lack of democracy and violence that’s intrinsic to the country, whether it be under the Shah or under the Imams. His thesis is that it’s the culture not just the government that’s to blame. His daughter Sayeh (Mojgan Naderi) is a doctor who works in an emergency room where her job consists of treating a stream of people who have made suicide attempts and want to die, forcing them to take emetics and vomit. In a hit and run accident, after which numerous cars drive by them lying in the street and drunks laugh, Aleghemand’s wife is killed and he is crippled, thus spending the rest of the film in a wheelchair. Sayeh’s fiance breaks up with her and she befriends another man in a wheelchair (Homayoon Mokammaei), who was brought to her for treatment because he had attempted suicide.
Makmalbaf portrays a country whose citizens have lost hope to the extent that they feel life is not worth living and they are committing suicide en masse. The character of the nation has changed, Alaghemand observes, sometimes it commits suicide. Or, if alive, they are paralysed, literally and metaphorically. People have imprisoned themselves. There are demonstrations in favour of Khomeini as he replaces the king. There’s the grief of a mother who has lost children on both sides of the revolution, and gunshots and machine-gun fire are heard outside.
There are conversations on philosophy, the different roles of men and women, freedom, happiness, pain, suffering. But most of all it is love, or the lack of it, that’s important. It’s love that brings hope. Sayeh and her new suitor’s faces are shot through a fence with prison-like bars as they stand either side of it, yet a bouquet of flowers can still be passed through.
The iconic Zayaneh-Rood is Iran’s biggest river. It runs through Isfahan, splitting it in two. Much of the action of the film takes place by it or on bridges over it. Meetings there can sad or hopeful, urgent or inconclusive. What is left of the film feels like snapshots of what it might have been. It feels like raw, angry, guerrilla filmmaking. It’s so powerful that to see a long take of a paralysed man leaving his wheelchair and slowly and painfully making his way across the screen on a zimmer frame can feel like the stirring of hope in the darkness.
The Nights of Zayaneh-Rood is a collector’s item and an unmissable insight into Makmalbaf’s later work.
The Nights of Zayaneh-Rood screened for the first time at the Venice Biennale in 2016, is released on 3 March 2016 in the UK and is introduced by Mohsen Makmalbaf on 4 March at a screening at Curzon Bloomsbury.