Manuscripts Don't Burn

Manuscripts Don't Burn ★★★½

Five years on from the jail sentence and 20 year directorial ban imposed on Mohammad Rasoulof by the Iranian government following the release of The White Meadows, the director continues to stand firm in defiance. His latest film sends a direct message back to the leaders of the country, that freedom of speech cannot and will not forever be curtailed. The risks for all involved are huge and the fact it has been made and released at all is a triumph within itself.

Such a sentence may sound dramatic because us folks in the West can usually detach ourselves once the credits roll, this is just a film after all right? Not often do we read such a sobering message immediately after a film has closed informing us that the all crew and cast members will not be mentioned in an attempt to protect their identity. Releases like these are moments where film fiction can transcend into a space where it truly matters, a place where it reflects a present reality, maybe even affect something other than a studios bank balance.

Rasoulof meshes together three sections of Iranian society, all with a vested interest in the covert activities of the creative underground. The day starts early with two henchmen leaving their latest mission en-route back home. We cut to a writer discussing with a friend his determination to print his newest piece in an attempt to provoke the minds of the country. The editor of the states leading newspaper can also be seen crossing through articles, his position in the story later far more pivotal as the threads of each party converge onto each other.

Time is taken to humanise the hitmen so they become more than just hired muscle carrying out orders. One of them has child in need of an operation, his patience running thin the longer he waits for his payment from the secret police to arrive. An ordinary guy who needs to support his family, the nature of jobs he is asked to perform forcing him to tussle with his conscience. At times Rasoulof tries too hard to find an empathetic route into these characters although the slow, deliberate steps elsewhere balance these moments out. The truth is that everyone has compromised themselves to be in their current position, no matter how vehemently they stand behind their morality.

Understandably a lot of the filming appears to have taken place under the cloak of dusk or dawn, presumably to avoid detection by the authorities. Rather than detract from the tone it actually adds to the clandestine air in a world where secret conversations, recordings, stakeouts and outright terrorisation is a daily occurrence. There are no punches pulled when it comes to interrogation scenes that remain unfussy and to the point, horribly close to the bone.

Any idea of an allegorical attack on the government in Iran has been blown out of the water by this vivid, in your (their) face confrontation. It reveals what many outside of the country believe to be true from a director who appears to be ready to lay it all on the line in return for this kind of expose. Not many will choose to pick up the film but those that do will be exposed to rare, fearless filmmaking.

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