Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Gardener

THE GARDENER                   B              
Iran  Israel  Great Britain  South Korea  (87 mi)  2012  d:  Mohsen Makhmalbaf           Official site

His first feature in three years, and the first time in over three decades that an Iranian filmmaker has shot a movie in Israel, Mohsen Makhmalbaf was once a staple of the great Iranian filmmakers along with Abbas Kiarostami, both of whom created film schools to encourage the creative development of younger filmmakers in Iran, where it’s interesting that these New Wave Iranian masters enjoyed their greatest success following the 1979 revolution, but since 2005 with the return of extreme censorship and fascism in his country when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into power, neither one lives or works in Iran any more.  Makhmalbaf left Iran as a protest against the Iranian dictatorship and at present lives in exile with his family, having lived in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and India, but mostly Paris and London since the disputed and likely rigged 2009 Iranian presidential election, where the Makhmalbaf family has collectively won over 100 international awards at various film festivals, all kept in the Museum of Iranian Cinema in Tehran where their works are banned in Iran from being shown.  Both the Bahá’í faith and travel to Israel have long been banned by the Iranian government, so when Makhmalbaf traveled to the Jerusalem Film Festival with his movie, the head of Iran’s official cinema organization denounced him for falling “into the arms of the occupier, the murderous Zionist regime” and called on the state cinema museum to remove his awards.  Other Iranian filmmakers have been arrested and forbidden from making films, including Jafar Panahi, a former assistant who worked for Kiarostami before becoming an acclaimed director, who received a six-year prison term and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, writing screenplays, talking to the press, and traveling abroad, but also Mohammad Rasoulof, Mehdi Pourmoussa, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Katayoun Shahabi, Hadi Afarideh, Nasser Saffarian, Shahnama Bazdar and Mohsen Shahrnazdar, not to mention human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and others.  Makhmalbaf himself is familiar with arrest, having spent four and a half years in prison as an Islamic militant in 1974 for stabbing one of the Shah’s Revolutionary Guard bodyguards, where he took a bullet to the stomach as well, restaging this event as a filmmaker in A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE (1996), perhaps his greatest film where in a moment of reconciliation he is reunited with the policeman he stabbed.  Embracing that same spirit of generosity and transcendence through art, Makhmalbaf and his son Maysam, a filmmaker in his mid-20’s, combine their efforts to explore the Bahá’í faith, a mid 19th century religion that began in Iran where 130,000 believers remain under relentless attack from arrest and persecution.

The setting for this film is the gorgeous and palatial Bahá’í gardens at the Bahá’í religion's world center in Haifa, Israel, the site of the Shrine of the Báb which is surrounded by beautifully sculpted, terraced gardens where the camera follows a gardener painstakingly take individual care of each flower in bloom throughout the entire grounds.  Makhmalbaf got special permission to roam the grounds, which is limited to Bahá’í members, each bringing their own video cameras filming whatever they want, while a third film crew films them.  Rather than a typical talking heads documentary, this one starts first and foremost with the radiant beauty on display, as the magnificent colors are striking, balanced beautifully with the everpresent sound of birds, whose presence flying through the trees is a living part of the landscape, suggesting a liberating spirit soaring high above.  Makhmalbaf’s narration suggests he has no religious affiliation, that he considers himself an agnostic filmmaker, so his purpose is to find an internal connection to the spirit of Bahá’í, a pacifist religion that in its 170 years of existence has never fought a war, believing land belongs not to nations, but to humanity, to all people, removing any reason or motivation to go to war for territorial ambitions.  A collection of all the world’s religions, violating no human rights principles, in Bahá’í, believers of Mohammad worship side by side with Jesus or Buddha, where the sum total of the world’s knowledge is utilized in combating differences.  Their beliefs suggest that hatred and war must be opposed by a stronger force for peace.  While they are filming, making the most of so little, the father and son engage in polite debate, where Maysam is against all forms of religion, believing they are the root cause of all wars, as people can get caught up in the frenzy of passion where al Qaeda can use bombings and murder as a pretext for Islam, or the Taliban can use religion to enslave women.  Mohsen takes a more spiritual approach and believes religion can actually promote peace and harmony among all of the world’s citizens, providing intellectual discipline and thought for guiding one’s behavior, where treating everyone with equal respect is paramount, “Love people not for themselves but for God.” 

While their discussions throughout do not feel forced or artificial, but genuine and heartfelt, as both represent different sides of many debates, where Maysam finds a young girl explaining her love of the Bahá’í faith as empowering and liberating, claiming “The Bahá’í faith is Hope actualized,” recalling the moment when she removed her veil in Islamist controlled Iran and finally felt free, where living there her emancipation was considered threatening and could not be tolerated.  Mohsen takes more interest in the quiet dedication and rhythmic perfection of a volunteer gardener from Papua, New Guinea, as he recounts how there are about 30,000 Bahá’í believers there while affirming his views for why he retains his Bahá’í faith.  While Maysam questions whether his father may be making a religious movie, he instead takes a break from the tranquility of the gardens and visits old Jerusalem, finding it incredulous that the most sacred piece of land to the Jews, the Western Wall where worshippers are seen devoutly praying or kissing the wall, is right around the corner from the Islamist Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Chapel of the Ascension, a Christian holy site marking the place where Jesus ascended to heaven, is only a few feet away down a tiny alleyway from the Dome of the Rock, the spot where Muhammad ascended to heaven, all within a few hundred feet from one another, where literally for centuries, Moslems, Christians, and Jews have been squabbling over this same tiny piece of land, pointing out that if one group tried to bomb one of the other’s religious shrines, it would inevitably destroy their own in the process.  While there is an unusual serenity in the garden, reflecting an absence of animosity, one tends to philosophize with phrases like “We are all flowers of one garden, the leaves of one tree,” suggesting the gardener “is not only gardening, in a way he is praying.  It is a kind of meditation.”  But Makhmalbaf also makes an interesting choice to use a flight-cam, suggesting a bird’s eye view to reflect the birds flying overhead, but these are shot in Black and White and have a dreary, slightly out of focus look about them, in utter contrast to the bright and luminous world of the gardens below.  These shots are interspersed throughout the film, reflecting a world without beauty and color, perhaps without the presence of God, where according to the curious thoughts of a friend Arno, they have the distinct look of military surveillance footage, like the view from drones flying high above, resembling those shots that show incoming missiles before they hit an exploding target.  While the question remains unanswered as to why pacifist Bahá’í followers are persecuted throughout the world and viewed as such a threat, this film demonstrates through the simplicity of a father quietly talking to his son how art transcends all conflicting religious doctrine.   

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