None of the films of Mohammad Rasoulof have ever been released in his home nation of Iran.1 His latest feature, Manuscripts Don’t Burn (دستنوشتهها نمیسوزند), is perhaps his most incendiary work yet, a chillingly matter-of-fact account of a botched plot to murder a group of Iranian intellectuals in 1995 and the decision, decades later, to pick them off one by one. It’s a film concerned with censorship and the creation of art, broadly, whilst also a look at the way in which religious doctrine has been twisted to seemingly aide a nationalist cause, masking a tale of personal past-erasure.
We open on a man in a car, waiting. The digital frame, with heightened blue hues, creates an image slightly removed from naturalism. When the man steps out of the car and surveys the scene, all is calm. Then suddenly, movement and the film kicks into gear – the man quickly reverses the car until another man, sprinting away from a building, hops into the backseat and they floor it and escape. Whilst this wordless opening seems to build typical genre-founded suspense, this tension is short-lived. The car stops soon after, with a mysterious and brief dialogue exchange before they calmly continue driving. Rasoulof aims to confound for much of the opening thirty minutes of Manuscripts, we know a murder has been committed but instead of dwelling on that specific crime, we follow the murderer, Khosrow, who is positioned as a sympathetic protagonist – we see him frustrated with his lack of pay, his young son refusing to talk and plagued by illness.
Whilst we stay with these characters awhile, the film, in fact, follows a dual narrative: the aforementioned hitmen driving around Iran and the second narrative, devoted to writers and poets grappling with the censorship of their work and their mistreatment at the hands of the Iranian government. In the segments of the film devoted to the ‘intellectuals’, Rasoulof manages to walk the tightrope between being darkly comic and also deadly serious, much of the dialogue of the writers feels like a mouthpiece for Rasoulof’s views, a clear and perhaps heavy-handed attack on censorship more broadly.2 Rasoulof, at some points, also comments on the modern state of information in the digital age, but none of these dialogue exchanges hit at anything more meaningful.
It is not the dialogue, though, that pushes his argument most effectively, rather it is the physicality of his actors (all of whom remain unnamed in the credits) and the film’s structure. The idea that the government would fear a neurotic man in a wheelchair and a placid poet is interesting with regards to blind persecution. The intellectuals as a whole, though, are not as well-constructed as Khosrow from the perspective of character building – often they feel merely like vessels for (valid) moral outrage. However there is quite an engaging segment late in the film, concerning a much older writer and his desire to see his daughter, that stands out amongst the writers on show. Rasoulof’s most impressive narrative work comes when the two narratives start to intertwine, things get extremely uncomfortable and confronting, the intellectual notion of censorship giving way to the actuality of a government’s suffocating control. Violence is mostly kept off-screen but in the few instances in which we see it depicted, including a scene with a garbage bag, the film is gripping viewing.
Much of the aesthetic of the film reveals its context as an illegally-made work. Much of the film is shot indoors, in cars or far away from the city center, creating a contrast between cramped and visually dull scenes of the interiors and these gorgeous establishing shots of the snow covered landscape.3 The usage of microphones in certain scenes creates hyper-clear background sounds, such a clothes pegs or a surveillance operator eating his lunch – at first this is grating until the underlying notion of amplification of the incidental arises, placing the fear of constant surveillance in the soundtrack. Rasoulof also uses disjointed narration in one of the film’s best sequences, where Khosrow recounts the infamous botched assassination at the heart of the story as their car drives through a tunnel, the visuals also now morphing into a POV shot of that fateful night.
The film moves through its narrative quite slowly, perhaps to its detriment at times, yet on the whole the film has a sense of importance about it. As aforementioned, it can be quite heavy-handed in its depiction of censorship, but it does paint a clear picture. The usage of a character who appears in (and arguably propels) both narrative strands, a newspaper editor with a wayward past who now works for the government, was an impressive way to add another layer of meaning to the film. As much as it is critical of the Iranian government’s stance on censorship, much of the plot can be traced back to this one character’s wish to remove all traces of his past involvement in an anti-government campaign. This gives more subtlety to a scene in which the two hitmen discuss whether their actions are justifiable under Sharia law – on the surface a blunt means of highlighting the conflation of church and state but with this added narrative dimension it becomes an aspect of willful ignorance to the true aim of their killings.
Ultimately the film is a contemplation of both censorship and the acts of violence needed to secure outward loyalty. At one point in the film a characters notes that 21 lives are worthless when compared to the sanctity of national security, built into that line is the paradoxical notion that words and ideas are worthless yet also that words and ideas could topple order and control. Manuscripts Don’t Burn seems to focus on this paradox, an impassioned depiction of a strangled intellectual class and a public that lives in ignorance of their government’s actions.