There is a moment of suspended animation in Manuscripts Don’t Burn where a character nonchalantly places a laundry clip over the nose of another, watching the latter suffocate to death slowly from having both his mouth and nose sealed. It is a chilling moment, and one that strikes the viewer exactly where the director intends the film to strike. Mohammed Rasoulof’s 2014 film is a fictional retelling of the infamous Chain Murders of Iran, a series of murders and disappearances of Iranian intellectuals who had been critical of the then government. Starting with the lead character – the man commissioned by the government to carry out the extortion – the film makes choice after interesting choice in its narration of the hunt for a banned manuscript. Taking its time with each moment and lingering on the seemingly mundane bits of daily life, the silence of the film and its observers is deafening.
Mohammed Rasoulof’s film assumes a cold, almost inhumane disposition toward the events unfolding, and paints the harsh realities of modern Iran with a tone of indifference that reflects the attitude of the people. The film can be divided into three narratives, which all come together at the end. At the outset, we are introduced to Khusrow, seemingly your everyday Iranian man, going about his morning rituals before leaving for whatever work awaits him in the outside world. He and Morteza, another operative, are given the keys to a car, and are told about something in the trunk. Khusrow is to drive the car, along with its contents, up north where further instructions await. It is clear that there is something shady going on, but the film is adamant in saying as little as possible. The second narrative follows two old writers, discussing in frustration the crackdown on their works by the government. Their years of being at odds with the government have taught them that only a fool would not have fear for their life. Yet, their souls stand defiant of oppression. The third focuses on a singular writer, close to his deathbed, who makes a deal with the authorities to let him go to his daughter in exchange for the hunted manuscript. This isn’t a film for those who turn to the movies for an escape from reality; instead it forces you to stare reality in the face: unfiltered, unsubtle, and unforgiving.
Rasoulof tries his best to present us with the actual facts as they happen, distancing his voice from creeping in and allowing the audience to form independent thoughts based off what they are seeing. This is why he has chosen to begin and end the film with the man Khusrow, who lives with his wife and son in the suburbs, and is struggling with several of life’s woes: money, naturally, and his son’s ailment. But once he steps out his door, Khusrow is also an operative hired by the government of Iran to assist them in their plan to wipe out all evidence of a government attempt to murder 21 writers. Leading us into the story through an average person with relatable troubles, Rasoulof is showing us the dark irony of modern oppression, which cannot happen without the involvement of persons who believe themselves to be righteous. Through this device, the film also makes us feel complicit in the acts of horror, committed by the hands whose pressing concerns include treatment for his boy. This is also the reason why the movie takes time out to show Khusrow making multiple stops at ATMs to ensure the transfer of money, and making calls to his wife to reassure her that the treatment would arrive.
We are introduced next to a completely different setting: a well off household, where a writer has just arrived to visit his aging friend. The latter has with him manuscripts containing evidence as to the murder attempts, which he plans to bring to the people of his country at any cost. His friend, however, is hesitant at locking horns with those in power, his eyes replete with the cynicism that comes with experience. Together, they represent the defiant spirit and the necessary fear, and their conversation similar to that happening within the minds of all artists dedicated to the truth, and especially the ones depicted in this film. Ironically enough, while the writers are risking their heads to tell the truth to the people, the very same people are doing anything they can to keep themselves from the indigestible truth. A recurring line in Manuscripts Don’t Burn is Khusrow’s plea to Morteza, requesting to not be present when certain deeds are committed, to wash his hands of the deed, as he believes that the sin would fall on his son if the target turns out to be innocent. (The similarity in words to the biblical line by Pontius Pilate is not coincidental.)
The third narrative is perhaps the most conventionally told: with clear conversations between the old writer and the sinister, calculating man from the government. It is in this story that the true desperation of the artists is shown: a frail old man imprisoned by the four walls of his apartment, under the watchful eye of the government, and not being allowed to go see his daughter. We see that loneliness and prolonged fear have broken the defiant spirit which the previous two still seem to possess, and he is reduced in seconds from making demands to begging for his freedom.
Rasoulof’s film is pronounced with a lack of outburst and reaction that mirrors the absence of the same in real society, where most react with their smartphones or stare vacantly even when brought face-to-face with the happenings of reality. An incredibly silent film, it is in fact only at the very end when Khusrow makes his way back into common society, that sounds seep into the silence, representing the return to normalcy that he feels inside. Manuscripts Don’t Burn is cruel to its audience, but it is a necessary cruelty intended to make us truly feel and understand the world around us, and our inevitable hand in the system of oppression. The title of the film refers to a line from the book ‘Master and Margharita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was similar in nature to the manuscript in the film, and could have gotten the author imprisoned or killed. The book, finally published after the author’s death, gave artists everywhere fighting censorship this rallying cry, which is now carried by Rasoulof, against an Iran that is cut from the same cloth as the erstwhile Soviet Union. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this one during the ‘Frames of Freedom’ film festival organized on the Indian Independence Day, here in Kolkata, and I would urge you to do the same: this is a movie that will not let you walk out as the same person who walked in.