Reviewing Mohammad Rasoulof's Manuscripts Don't Burn is more than just judging a film on its artistic merits. Clandestinely shot, since the director has been banned from filmmaking in his home country Iran for twenty years, this is a stinging indictment of the Iranian government's crackdown on anyone who doesn't abide by their rules, most notably intellectuals like Rasoulof. Sentenced in December 2010 to six years in prison (later reduced to one year on appeal), Rasoulof hadn't been seen in public since then, but he presented his film in UCR on Friday at the festival, which has always been supportive of persecuted Iranian filmmakers (Jafar Panahi's This Is Not A Film played out of competition two years ago, after famously being smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake).
Manuscripts Don't Burn tells the story of a trio of writers under scrutiny for writing as-yet-unpublished manuscripts about an incident many years ago, in which 21 members of the intellectual elite (including these writers) were almost murdered in a staged bus accident. Obviously, government officials aren't too thrilled about the prospect of these manuscripts actually going to press (clandestinely, of course), and so they are slowly but surely turning the screws on them. Rasoulof smartly chooses to put most of the focus on two low-ranking henchmen, Morteza and Khosrow. The latter in particular is given a streak of humanity, constantly worried about his young son who needs to be hospitalized, and the resulting financial burden that has led him to do this work. One cannot help but feel some sympathy towards this sad-eyed lump of a man who looks like the world's troubles are all on his shoulders. A subverting trick by Rasoulof, because it makes the actions Khosrow is shown capable of later on really hit home.
The film plays out as a slow-burning police thriller, only with the bad guys winning, but the film is bookended by two statements that elevate its importance to that of a political document. The opening card states that the film is based on actual events, and instead of closing credits we get a statement that to protect the innocence of all involved, none of the cast or crew will be credited. Of course there is a degree of artistic freedom at play (the henchman characters are probably largely fictitious), but the realization that this kind of state oppression is part of day-to-day life for some Iranians is saddening, and also instills the need to separate the quality of the filmmaking and storytelling (both pretty high as it is) from the film's importance as a textbook document about oppressive regimes. Rasoulof is a sly filmmaker for showing most of this from the perspective of the oppressors, even humanizing them to an extent. One cannot imagine that this film won't have serious repercussions for the director, but that doesn't make him back down from fighting his fight for freedom of speech in his own country. Normally we would apply the term 'brave' filmmaking to an auteur pushing the limits of the medium (something like Kechiche did a couple of days ago), but the real courage can be found in people like Rasoulof, who show that film can be more than just a few good hours at the movies.