‘Oh Land, we are murdered for your preservation’

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Off last Monday to Saffron Walden’s wonderful new cinema, the Saffron Screen (yes, that’s a plug) to see Mohammed Rasoulof’s fine new film, Manuscripts Don’t Burn.

The film is a claustrophobically circular journey at several levels, a snake biting its own tail, a topologically incestuous Klein bottle with no inside and no outside.  It begins with a man, covered in blood, running out of a derelict building, pursued by a half-seen figure, and jumping into an accomplice’s getaway car. It ends with the blood-soaked scene of murder inside the building which the killer was fleeing, a poet blindfolded and tied to a post, stabbed a dozen times. The pursuer remains unknown, a Fury with his face obscured by a kuffiyeh. In between these two halves of the film’s final murder, a story of secret police brutality unfolds, banal and brutal, of Iranian security agents tormenting and killing dissident intellectuals. The circularity is reflected in the repetitive work of the two agents in the car, picking up, intimidating, torturing and killing people they’re told to, and living it as the most ordinary of jobs, murder punctuated with tea and sandwiches. The fat goon is unreflective: the thin, bearded goon is a worrier, his child ill, his bank account empty.

The film explores the final round in a long series of encounters between each writer and the police – and in particular with a smooth, neatly barbered senior intelligence official who plays coolly and cruelly with the hopes and fears of each victim, the more vicious for being a turned dissident himself, a cell-mate of one of the writers he persecutes. The two thugs are tools, bit-part players, with a cursorily sketched background of family worries for the more neurotic of the two. “Don’t worry if it’s right or wrong – we do what we’re told, and it’s according to Sharia,” says fat goon to thin goon, reassuringly.

The film isn’t a whodunnit, because we know from the first that the two thugs in the car did it and will go on doing it. The plot covers a few months, during which the bearded spymaster is trying to get his hands on all the copies of a manuscript memoir that contains incriminating evidence about his own past – and in particular about an episode several years earlier when a security goon tried to drive off the edge of a cliff a bus full of Iranian writers on the way to a conference in Armenia. The merging of motives – state security inextricably mixed up with personal arse-covering – is powerfully credible. The spymaster has his own masters, and there are things he doesn’t want to come out. One by one his minions track down the manuscripts by force and lies. One by one he has the writers involved killed – after all, many of them were, as it transpires, in the bus, and anyone who has read the memoir knows things that he shouldn’t about the cold-eyed guardian of the Islamic Revolution. With implausible symmetry, the hit-man, the man running from the old building, is the very same man who jumped from the driver’s seat of the bus as it rolled towards the Armenian cliff-edge.

But the truth is that he really was. The programme note tells us that “the story is loosely based on true events of the late 1980s and 1990s – the so-called ‘Chain Murders,’ in which more than 80 writers, political activists and ordinary citizens were killed by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security.” Actually that ‘loosely’ is deceptive. The two stories, the true and the recounted, touch very closely indeed. We know the name of the murderer running out of the abandoned building, though the film doesn’t tell us: his name is Khosrow Barati. Just as in the film, Barati was in life the man who tried to drive a bus full of writers off an Armenian cliff in 1996, and failed; and probably the instrument of many of the Chain Murders. Just as in the film, the smooth author of the murders, whose name was Saeed Emami, directed the killers. Emami was a former Deputy Minister of Intelligence. Many of the horrid details are all too close to reality. Said Serjani, who like his parallel in the film was determined to get his banned book – a 1989 satire called You of Shortened Sleeves – republished, was killed by cardiac arrest induced with a potassium suppository, forcefully administered, a scene horrifically reproduced in the film. One after another, over a decade and a half, but intensifying after the signing of a famous writers’ petition in 1994, some 80 intellectuals died, often of unexpected cardiac arrests, or mysteriously stabbed to death in their homes, their bodies frequently found on waste land on the city’s edge. The film is a lightly fictionalised account of the last half dozen murders in the autumn of 1998.

What Rasoulof doesn’t give us is the sequel. The awful campaign of murders was investigated and reported in the temporarily less repressive atmosphere of Mohammed Khatami’s ‘Tehran Spring,’ in late 1998, with accounts published in the press. It became necessary to resolve the scandal semi-publically, while limiting the damage. A rogue gang was discovered to have been operating within the intelligence ministry, pursuing its own vindictive agenda of murder and torture: “Unfortunately, a small number of irresponsible, misguided, headstrong and obstinate staff within the Ministry of Intelligence, who are no doubt under the influence of rogue undercover agents and acting towards the objectives of foreign and estranged sources when committing these criminal acts,” (sic) as the Ministry’s statement put it. The bus conspiracy was revealed to an apparently horrified minister, who took prompt action to contain the problem before being fired himself. Barati and others were imprisoned. Saaed Emami supposedly killed himself in detention by drinking depilatory lotion and then died … of cardiac arrest. Then, silence: all further enquiry was firmly squashed; any suggestion that the murders constituted more than the final grisly list of half a dozen from 1998, dangerous; all mention of the affair strongly discouraged. Business as usual.

Another circle, this one of forcibly suppressed knowledge bursting out and having once again to be forcibly suppressed; of intelligence moguls covering their tracks by throwing juniors to the wolves and then squashing public mention and writing. Rather than being merely a fictionalised account, Manuscripts Don’t Burn seems more like a glass jar pushed by a child through the water-surface of a rock-pool, giving a brief, clear glimpse of the crabs, starfish and shrimps scuttling about on the bottom.

In a final layer of circularity, Rasoulof himself is part of the same fragmented community of persecuted artists, unable to work openly in Iran, living partly there and partly in Germany, banned from film-making but still making fiercely excoriating films like this. The credits roll out in unbroken black, because it was unsafe for any actor to be identified. Interior shots were made in Germany, and only the exteriors in Iran. But even here there is a sense of paranoia in the lens, of filming across streets from concealment, of cars and buses crossing the foreground too close and too jerkily. It is camera-work designed to highlight the shared paranoia of writers and goons; but it is also the paranoia of a director working undercover at considerable risk to himself.

A labile interweaving of fiction and reality, of 1998 and 2014, this film bears witness to the bleak bureaucracy of murder. Has it changed since? This week’s Economist comments that even the apparently more liberal President Rohani has no fewer than five cabinet ministers from the Ministry of Internal Security.

As the writer and intellectual Mirza Jahangir Khan Sur-e-Esrafil said before he was hanged as long ago as 1908, “Oh land, we are murdered for the sake of your preservation.” Plus ça change …

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