Along with Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the best known of the Iranian New Wave directors who came to international prominence in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He is not merely a director, though: in recent years Makhmalbaf has founded a whole film-making dynasty. The family business of the Makhmalbaf Film House, as it is known, comprises no fewer than five directors: Mohsen himself, his second wife, Marziyeh Meshkini, his daughters Samira and Hana and his son Maysam. Having made themselves thoroughly non grata with the ayatollahs, the family group is now based in Paris.
The book's title is wholly apt: before upsetting the current Iranian theocrats, Makhmalbaf was jailed and tortured at age 17 for resistance to the Shah. The author of this book - an Iranian-born academic now living in New York - has known Makhmalbaf for more than a decade. Running throughout this book are his affectionate, if sometimes mildly exasperated, personal recollections of the man he describes as "a nomadic film-maker, a traveling troubadour, in the cast of his creative character, in the texture of his impatient imagination. Itinerant, migratory, evasive, he can never be cornered or settled." This "mobility of spirit defines his restless and indefatigable cinema", which Dabashi sums up as "a cinema of festive fury".
Hamid Dabashi offers shrewd insights into Makhmalbaf's style of film-making. Tackling the criticism most often levelled at his films, their narrative weakness, Dabashi notes that the same is true of his published fiction: "He is not much of a storyteller. He is a well-digger, an archeologist of latent emotions, forgotten anxieties, hidden horrors, latent hopes ... The narrative movement is always virtual." Elsewhere he celebrates the referential playfulness of Makhmalbaf's technique, especially in such films as Gabbeh and Once Upon a Time, Cinema, while pointing out how such playfulness coexists with, and often underpins, their political message. Gabbeh, Dabashi notes, can be read as "an ode to the flamboyant joy of color in a republic of juridical darkness".
This appreciation of Makhmalbaf's film-making, acknowledging how his strengths and weaknesses complement and even enhance each other, is illuminating. Dabashi also fills in the social and political context of the films, providing a grim sketch of Tehran in the 1990s, when the city "was wrapped in a religious aura ... Veil, violence and martyrdom underlined congestion, greed and despair."
Periodically, however, Dabashi abandons this more lucid mode to plunge into pages of coagulated abstractions and academic jargon reminiscent of the worst excesses of film-theory semiotics of the 1970s. He seems especially prone to this tortured style of writing when striving to differentiate Makhmalbaf's output from "postcolonialist" (ie, European and American) cinema: "My principal argument here is predicated on the proposition that the varied forms of ideological resistance to colonialism cannot but further implicate the colonial subject in its own de-subjection ... What we witness in Makhmalbaf's cinema is an attempt to reach for the transparency of the real, which ipso facto mocks and modifies the authority of the evident." With no apparent irony, he then chides Western film-study scholars for "writing excruciatingly erudite but astoundingly irrelevant theoretical speculations" about Third World films.
In this mood, Dabashi issues rigidly dogmatic pronouncements, insisting, for example, that no country can produce a national cinema until it has experienced a "national trauma", and that "colonial and imperial countries have never produced a national cinema". By this logic, he states, France never had a national cinema until after the evenements of 1968. (Alas for poor Jean Renoir.)
In short, this is a bewilderingly schizophrenic book. Readers wanting a serviceable account of Makhmalbaf's cinema might well indulge in some judicious skipping.
Makhmalbaf at Large: The Making of a Rebel Filmmaker
By Hamid Dabashi
I. B. Tauris
Published 1 May 2008