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iffr: manuscripts don't burn

Modern Iranian cinema, always prominently present at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, is known for its poetic, metaphorical storytelling, beloved by Western audiences but often born of sheer necessity: to circumvent the censors. Social and political themes cannot be broached directly, but they can be cloaked in subtle fables, usually taking place indoors or inside cars as these provide relatively inconspicuous locations to shoot.

'Manuscripts Don't Burn' ('Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoozand', 2013) furiously breaks with this tradition and confronts the Iranian censorship and repression head-on. A pitch-dark political thriller about the authorities' ruthless efforts to cover up an earlier attempt to assassinate a group of intellectuals, the film follows two writers who attempt to hide a manuscript exposing this government plot, as well as the members of the secret police who are sent after them.

Manuscripts Don't Burn - 1

The scenes of the two henchmen and their slithery boss interrogating the writers create harrowing moments, but more oppressive is the film's general atmosphere of mundane, routine terror. The writers know they are doomed, and though they put up a fight, even making plans to illegally publish the manuscript, it feels like they might well be the last ones standing. And the secret police members, driving around with their victim in the trunk of their car, well, for them it's just another job. One of them can't pay the bills for his sick child in hospital, and while he has moments of doubt - is his child being punished for his sins? - his colleague reassures him, in what sounds like a trite formula, that they are complying with shari'a law.

Director Mohammad Rasoulof, who was banned from filming by the authorities in 2011, made the film in secret and has since had his passport confiscated. From Tehran he sent a director's statement read before the screening, warning the audience that this would not be an enjoyable film, made about a particularly dark period of his life - referring to the so-called Chain Murders in Iran that it was based on.

Indeed, the film seems to offer little hope of change in Iran, except perhaps for its title, which quotes Bulgakov's famous Stalin-era novel 'The Master and Margarita' and its conviction that ideas can never be supressed entirely.

That, and the fact that 'Manuscripts Don't Burn' was made at all and shown, at least, internationally.

Manuscripts Don't Burn - 2

The film also provides a grim background to another film shown at IFFR, the Swiss documentary 'L'escale' ('Stop-Over', 2014), an intimate portrait of a group of illegal Iranian immigrants stuck in Athens. This film restricts itself to the daily life of waiting and hoping of these young men and doesn't pry into their motives or backgrounds - as their landlord, another Iranian immigrant remarks, it's a rule of his 'hostel': "Here we don't ask questions. The past is the past."

So we are left guessing about their reasons for leaving their country - perhaps fleeing persecution, perhaps purely economic. But as we witness a few of these men, supplied with stolen passports whose photographs resemble them somewhat (in one case rather ludicrously), make the risky jump further into Europe, you'd like to think one of them was carrying a manuscript...

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