Interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf: “Films have to have magic”

Interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf: “Films have to have magic”

Reel talk

Text: Varsha Sivaram

Image: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

In between screenings at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), we chat with Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf about art, the industry, and the eternality of film

For a man who has practically experienced everything – from imprisonment to near death – Mohsen Makhmalbaf has not the faintest trace of ego. With genuine warmth in his eyes, he is a picture of courtesy, even after decades in the business. One can imagine the sheer number of interviews the 58-year old director has been through, but he remains generous with his words.

If you're a foreign film aficionado, you might have heard of The Cyclist (1987)one of his most renowned works. In it, a man cycles for seven days straight as a circus perfomer to pay his dying wife's hospital bills. 28 years on, it's not the most technically impressive film. But what captivates to this day is the raw emotion – seeing pain, physical and emotional, in its most base form. Those are the types of narratives Makhmalbaf seeks to portray. 

Singapore hasn't seen the filmmaker for almost two decades; the last time he was on our shores was 17 years ago, when Gabbeh opened the SGIFF in 1997. Back in town for a retrospective of his works – and to receive an Honorary Award from the Festival – Makhmalbaf is eager to wax lyrical on his craft.

At the quieter wing of the National Museum, we sit in a low lit, empty area with plush chairs, voices echoing amidst high ceilings. It's ideal for a presence such as his – seemingly understated, yet carrying weighty significance. Accompanied by a media representative, Makhmalbaf is suprisingly calm and measured, despite his packed schedule: He's here for our chat after speaking with young filmmakers at Filmgarde in Bugis, and will be heading to a discussion about his latest feature The President (2015) after another interview. Time is of the essence, so I get right into it.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf

What do you think of Singapore and SGIFF?
The first time I came here was 17 years ago, as a member of the Jury. Middle Eastern films had concepts of feminism, war, and fundamentalism, but somewhere like here in Singapore, had different concepts. SGIFF gives us the opportunity to compare different countries' conflicts. The place where we were born gives us a different vision, different problems. It is like a sociologist's class for the audience, comparing different countries.

I can see how much your city has developed in terms of buildings, high buildings, and how much more crowded [it is] now, and more noisy than before. My vision is like a tourist's now.

Some have said that these changes – the high-rise buildings, the crowd – have stifled creativity.
You could have your story. It doesn't matter — high buildings or low buildings, empty city or crowded city. You can create your story, you can share your story, and through it we can understand your condition. 

We have only one life, but each film gives us another life. Watching films and reading novels, they give eternality to the audience. So it's very important to see different kinds of films, from different nations. Because many of Hollywood films are the same, they have no diversity.

Gabbeh by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Out of the films of yours that are screening at the Festival, if you had to select one you want people to see the most, which would it be and why?
If you are a young filmmaker, I can suggest that you watch Salaam Cinema (1995), or A Moment of Innocence (1996). If you are a sociologist, I suggest you watch The President (2015). If you are a reader of novels and poems, I suggest Gabbeh (1996). It depends on who you are, and in which mood you are.

The President (2015)

If you were making The Cyclist today, would you have changed anything about it?
I can't change my past, because if I change my past, it would be something else. It is not the correction of something; it is recreating something. For example, in that moment for The Cyclist I remember my childhood story: I saw a man who was riding a bicycle from Pakistan. I remember that story, and I added different layers on that to tell the story of Afghan society.

It was difficult, because how could you have close-up of a man who's riding a bicycle? So I had the challenge of technique. I tried to show society through one story as well; I wanted to make a film for the public. In Iran we had three million Afghan refugees, [and] Iranian people's attitudes were so aggressive with them. That's why I made this film: To bring people to the cinema, to make them more kind towards those refugee people.

So you wouldn't change anything; it's just a matter of the story itself.
You know I have rules for myself. I say, films should be entertaining, to bring audiences to the cinema. I don't like boring films. They are a waste of time. But films should have a message, and they have to have magic. When I say entertainment, I don't mean the Hollywood and Bollywood style. I mean an attractive film. So I made The Cyclist like this. But if you look for example to A Moment of Innocence, it's another style. The concept is different.

A Moment of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Speaking of the messages in your films, in The Gardener you talk about how technology these days can be destructive. Do you still feel the same way?
You know I don't reject technology. I put questions on quantity, and the way that we use it. For example, we have a lot of cars. But we don't have places to go. 40 years ago we hadn't this amount of cars, we had more places to go. Even in one country you had different styles of cities. Nowadays, I have visited maybe 60 to 70 countries – all of them are the same! There is no diversity. We are made poor by this technology.

Before, doors were paintings as well. Art and industry were together. We also had enough jobs for everyone. Now we have created machines, and we cannot compete with our machines. I reject this style of using technology. I'm not a flat-minded person to say we don't need any. But we need tools in control of human beings, not tools that can control human beings. 

Mohsen Makhmalbaf was here for the SGIFF 2015. For more coverage of the festival, click here.