Mohammed Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013), filmed secretly inside Iran and smuggled out of the country for its premiere at Cannes, is an angry and at times despairing meditation on censorship, betrayal and state-sponsored violence. Its sense of outrage at a repressive government recalls Costa-Gavras’ 1969 thriller Z but the odds against the good guys are far more intimidating here; the brutal regime Rasoulof evokes doesn’t just dispatch threats to its power, but mercilessly extinguishes any and all dissent. This is a government that is careful not to make martyrs, stripping its enemies of every last shred of dignity before destroying them.
Khosrow and Morteza are freelance operatives working for the regime, and while they are capable of chilling brutality they are also depicted as quite human. Khosrow worries about his sick child and the money he needs to pay for medical treatment, money that’s been promised to him but which never seems to arrive in his bank account. Morteza, the more experienced of the two, offers his prayers and encouragement, and calls in favors to help with the child’s treatment. And every day the two carry on with their routine job: kidnapping, torturing and murdering the enemies of the state, a group that includes anyone who dares speak above a whisper.
Their overseer is himself a former dissident, who switched sides to become a government censor and interrogator. He is now dedicated to terrorizing his former friends, a dismayingly small band of aging writers and intellectuals. All have vivid memories of a botched assassination plot against them two decades ago, and some have recorded their recollections of the incident. But the government ruthlessly hunts for every scrap of evidence, determined to erase history itself.
“The only thing this government does well,” one of the characters observes, “is turning intellectuals against one another.” The dissident’s precarious position is underscored by the constant humiliations they must endure: one is in a wheelchair and incontinent; another pleads to be let out of the country before he dies; another seems too hollowed-out to care about much of anything. But somehow they stubbornly, almost miraculously, cling to the notion that their work is important, that it can make a difference. They feel certain that if only their voices are heard, they will be able to change things for the better. And even if they can’t, the mere act of speaking out is a right they refuse to cede.
You might argue that the film doesn’t offer much hope for these aspirations. But Manuscripts Don’t Burn itself stands as an act of courage and defiance. This is a tough and daring movie; Rousolouf’s name is the only one credited in the film. The cast and crew, some apparently non-professionals, remain anonymous in order to protect their identities.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn screens at the Trylon Monday and Tuesday night at 7:00 and 9:15. Purchase tickets here.