Black screen. A single line of white text in Persian language superimposed, reading: “A film by Mohammad Rasoulof. Manuscripts Don’t Burn. Based on true events.” Along with a final note indicating that the cast and crew won’t be mentioned by their names not to jeopardise their safety, these are the only credits we ever get to see in this movie. Rasoulof’s sixth feature film was shot clandestinely in Iran, following his 20-year ban on filmmaking by his native country’s authorities. Rumours of the film being smuggled into Cannes Film Festival in extreme secrecy and the fact that it deals with modern-day censorship and state violence make it a highly intriguing piece of work. None of Rasoulof’s films have ever been released in Iran and Manuscripts Don’t Burn thus far only saw the light of day in the global festival circuit and in a limited number of countries where it’s been distributed. Unrightfully so, as it deserves a much bigger audience.
The plot revolves around two secret service hitmen (Khosrow and Morteza) who are sent on a mission to retrieve copies of a manuscript that deals with a failed attempt to assassinate 21 dissidents by staging a bus accident. The “true events” in the title sequence are alluding to The Chain Murders, a series of extrajudicial executions of political dissidents and prominent intellectuals in Iran between 1988 and 1998. Both men are low-level operatives in the chain of command and they are essentially as common as they can be. Khosrow is struggling with financial problems as his son is in need of medical treatment while Morteza appears to be a very regular, pragmatic guy who is hoping one of their assignments would finish quickly since he has a wedding to attend the very same evening. The original contaminated manuscript was written by Kasra, a censored author with a traveling ban imposed on him. He now tries to make a deal with his former prison mate who has in the meanwhile made a career as a state official. In exchange for the manuscript, he demands his ban to be lifted in order to see his daughter who lives in France. Kasra, along with a group of like-minded writers, is living a life without any hope or prospect of improvement. We get an insight in a small circle of Tehran intellectuals who are living under constant surveillance and intimidation. They are free to talk and write about whatever they want, but getting their work published is proving to be a mission impossible. With the government keeping them in limbo about the possible consequences of their work, they are feeling increasingly claustrophobic and frustrated.
The intense opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Grim, cold and serious, we see the two agents going about their ghastly assignment with sober precision and stoic devotion to their work. With their conscience switched off, the ordinariness of their job becomes almost poetic, and much like the dealings of Jef Costello in Melville’s Le Samouraï, this duality is appalling and fascinating at the same time. During the abduction of one of the writers who is allegedly hiding a copy of the manuscript, the two agents’ instructions change and the story takes a course towards an inevitable tragedy. Questions of morality and redemption are raised along the way. At various points in the film it is unclear whether the characters are having a conversation between themselves, or what we hear is an exposure of their thoughts (which are often not analogous to their words). Deliberately creating such confusion at times, a narrative juxtaposition is designed between the characters and the audience, blurring the idea of truth and metaphorically detaching thought from word. With this remarkably effective cinematic trick Rasoulof is trying to illustrate what it might be like not to be able to share one’s thoughts with the public, but he also attempts to involve the audience in living in a world of fear, without freedom of expression. A visual leitmotif in the film are the recurring scenes of Khosrow washing himself, no doubt to purge his simmering sense of guilt. It is suggested that it is often the proverbial small man who, entrapped in an ideological-come-societal oppression, ends up doing the dirty work, committing gruesome crimes in somebody else’s name. Metaphorically speaking, this is where the film’s cynicism is at its most powerful. Khosrow is completely unaware of bigger implications of his deeds at work, while he is at the same time trying to be a loving and caring father and husband.
The film’s title is a reference to a passage from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Following its publication in the Soviet Union (nearly three decades after Bulgakov’s death) the book was promptly banned but, as it often happens, it became more appealing turning into somewhat of a symbol for the struggle of persecuted writers against political repression. Much like in Stalin’s Russia, within the context of this movie any form of satire and criticism can lead to severe repercussions or even permanent disappearance of the author. Many parallels can be drawn between this film and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 drama The Lives of Others. Both films deal with censorship in authoritarian systems, extensive surveillance of high profiled intellectuals and an all-encompassing suppression of freedom of speech. The main difference clearly lies in the fact that, as opposed to being a historical document, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is depicting a contemporary society, with Rasoulof, much like his characters, paying the price for his criticism and struggle for free speech. Many of the protagonists seem to be primarily careerists, while perhaps somewhere down the line also holding the traces of former idealists. One can also say that there is a lack of real ideology present; the official state ideology in the movie is instrumentalised as a part of a terminology and a set of phrases that essentially don’t mean much, unless they’re continuously repeated. National security, cultural enemies, terrorism, spies; we’ve all heard these terms before, and they work just as effectively in Iran much as anywhere else, arguably even better. An interesting figure is that of Morteza’s and Khosrow’s boss, a high ranking secret service official who is essentially portrayed as a caricature (by no means a funny one), a personification of the oppressive, bureaucratic Frankenstein that the system has created. As the manuscript is compromising to the state affairs (and, as we soon find out, to him personally), he does not shrink from using all means necessary to retain his powerful position. Not surprisingly, these means include self-serving and selective bending of the official state mores.
Ultimately, just like Bulgakov’s novel, this film does not primarily deal with ideology itself, but with the choking, dictatorial bureaucratic order it produces to enforce what’s left of that ideology. The system is being utterly oppressive, but it is at the same time very concerned about not coming across as such, with both oppressors and the oppressed being perfectly aware of this. This is where the characteristics of contemporary Iranian regime come to light in all their paradoxical hypocrisy. Although sometimes narratively too explicit, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a very brave political thriller which through its muted tones, brilliant storytelling, carefully timed tension build-up, and some sublime acting makes for a compelling and unsettling experience. Smoothly moving between past and present, we are offered insights on the subject from various points of view, through characters which are fundamentally different yet all being part of the same system. The perpetrators as well as victims. Although it has all the ingredients of an action-packed conspiracy movie, this film is actually a slow burner that gives the audience time to think and for its messages and metaphors to sink in.
While this film is a brutally critical j’accuse by a fiercely enraged director, it also exposes human weakness of all parties involved. Rasoulof turns it into a personal movie in a very direct way, involving in the story his own fate and that of his fellow filmmaker and collaborateur Jafar Panahi who, like the character of Kasra, is out of prison on bail perpetually waiting for his one year prison sentence to be carried out. Manuscripts Don’t Burn was awarded the FIPRESCI prize for enterprising film making at Cannes 2013. For its socio-political importance and skillful filmmaking this is a must-see piece of cinema.