Home Video Hovel: Manuscripts Don’t Burn, by Dayne Linford
Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn ends with the following statement: “Due to censorship in Iran and in order to maintain the safety of the crew, all individuals who were involved in the making of this film have renounced from being named in the credits.” Wow. If the preceding two hours didn’t do the job, that’s definitely a shit-got-real moment, and in many ways underscores the urgent tone that carries throughout the film, which examines and condemns the censorship the film itself faces.
Manuscripts focuses on three separate groups of characters – the artists, in this case writers, being censored; the “police,” who take on the rough work of the censoring; and, most importantly, the minister of censorship himself. A quiet, serious man, the minister is a former radical who once shared a cell with his primary opponent – a writer, nearly broken, who, desperate to get out of Iran and reunite with his daughter before he dies, has written a document incriminating the Iranian government in the attempted massacre, by bus accident, of nearly a score of prominent Iranian intellectuals years ago, and hidden two copies amongst his associates. The document directly incriminates the minister, and the conflict between the two men, portrayed in quiet conversation, steely gazes, and downcast eyes, takes on a personal tone, each equally aware of their opponent’s fragility in a country characterized by rampant state-sanctioned murder, each one false step away from becoming a direct enemy of the state. The film takes on the personality of the minister, who can only be considered its primary protagonist, reflecting his pragmatic approach, the barely noticeable current of fear under his actions, his ruthless self-protection, and turns it back on himself, becoming, ultimately, a judgment of him, his methods, his beliefs, and, especially, his government.
The writers themselves are hardly competition for this figure. As one writer mourns the extensive censorship of his most recent novel, another expresses the feeling that writing itself is a waste of time, that the expression is dangerous and useless. They all circle this drain and attempt to position themselves around it as they struggle for the opportunity of self-expression, until one of their number just gives up, writing a document with little art in it, a recollection of events past that directly incriminates the government, promising only to divulge its location when the minister allows him to leave Iran. Desperate to escape, broken and hopeless, he sells out his friends, throwing them to the state, for the barest chance at getting out alive. If one survives, this is the final outcome in a long life of warring with the state. Rasoulof, jailed by Iran for a year after his on-set arrest in 2010, understands this intimately, and seems to be looking forward to his own possible fate refracted in that of the three writers.
The police are no better for their efforts. Doubt, hesitancy, and exhaustion dog their steps, memories and daily medical and financial struggles needling at their driven bodies and desiccated souls. One, a young father with an extensive history of state-sponsored violence, facing accusations from his wife that their son’s chronic sickness is Allah’s punishment for his work, nearly begs the other to spare him from having to participate in “finishing” their particular victim of the day. The other, building a life on his work and having recently moved to a better neighborhood with a bigger house, reluctantly assents, only to nearly botch the job due to the unfortunate prying eyes of a young boy, whom he manages to only barely catch. The following decision, Rasoulof asserts, is the daily in and out of their work. Manuscripts begins with these men running, fleeing another man who’s caught them in the act of murdering at the state’s order, making clear that this chaos, this suffering, this fragility, is simply daily life in Iran.
Nearly everything about Manuscripts is spare, including, surprisingly, its violence, which is generally filmed off-screen, at least at the beginning of the film. As it progresses, Rasoulof steps up the depravity and the dehumanization key to violence as the film progresses, ending with an astounding series of actions shockingly cruel and inhuman. Like other meditations on political violence, such as The Conformist, Rasoulof knows to save his ammunition for later, letting it go at just the right moment to carry the greatest impact. Unlike Bertolucci, however, Rasoulof is a resolutely bare-bones director, not given to flourishes and stark lighting. Nearly everything is filmed naturally, from a quiet distance. He does not want his viewers to step inside the mindset of his characters, but to observe them minutely, to analyze it and accept its reality. The few directorial flourishes he does make – floating a character’s dialogue over his impassive, silent face – underscore this point and allow us deeper access into the hidden doubts, fears, and reservations of these characters. This is all prologue, however, for the final round of “finishings” that wrap up the film, all of which are filmed in an unsparing naturalism that roots you to your seat and forces you to contend with its violence and horror. For Rasoulof, speaking, unlike Bertolucci, directly of the current political climate and the daily atrocities that occur inside of it, the events portrayed are enough. In Manuscripts Don’t Burn, these atrocities cannot be ignored.