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Attending Israel's Film Festival: An interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf - Banned from Flying in the Sky


By Nooshabeh Amiri, Rooz Online

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s trip to the Jerusalem Film Festival in Israel has caused a lot of controversy. For instance, Fars New Agency reported: “Mohsen Makhmalbaf talks about friendship with Israel right at a time when the regime has started a new wave of cultural and media propaganda against what Makhmalbaf calls ‘cultural dialogue between Iran and Israel’.”

At the same time, 150 Iranian social and political activists outside Iran have signed an online petition claiming Makhmalbaf’s decision to participate in the film festival represents ‘implicit support for Israel’s apartheid policies’. Also, in response to Makhmalbaf’s recent visit to Israel, Javad Shamghadri, one of the authorities of the Ahmadinejad-controlled cinema agency, ordered the withdrawal of all of Makhmalbaf’s works from Iran’s cinema museum. However, in an interview with Rooz, Makhmalbaf highlights his response:

“I always remind myself that what I say and how I behave should not be a reaction to the mistakes of others. It is possible that you get accused of something and while defending yourself, in a rage of anger and weakness, you say something that you don’t believe in. But we are all suffering the chill of the same winter. We are all drowning in the same sea while we could be enjoying the sun on the beach. We are the ones who have made it taboo to have any relationship with Israel. An incident happened 60 years ago, and humankind - with all its claims, all its financial, political and military capacities and all its religious hatred - has tried to solve this issue in vain. We live on one planet, but we do not see each other as people living on the same planet. We have divided ourselves with political, ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic borders. Instead of considering ourselves and everyone else who lives on this planet as human beings, we first think whether we are men or women, American, Iranian or Israeli; or if I am in Afghanistan, the question is whether I am Hazara or Pashto or Tajik... We keep dividing ourselves. It was the same divisions that in Hitler’s time created the most absurd tragedy, not only for the Jews, but for all of humanity. Now, after 60 years, do we still need to resolve our issues with war, enmity and continuous and growing hatred? Isn’t it better to start a dialogue instead? When you believe that we should enter a dialogue with a totalitarian regime like the Islamic regime of Iran, which is constantly acting against its neighbors and its own people-from sending terrorists to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, to suppressing movements within its own borders-why are you against dialogue when it comes to the question of the Middle East?

“I would very much like this discussion to continue. Like a bird, I have entered the no-fly zone of Iranian intellectuals’ minds and now they are asking, ‘Why did you fly? We had established Israel’s sky as a no-fly zone, so why did you fly there?’ I welcome these kinds of discussions and I thank all those who wrote to me and wanted to advise me and show me my mistakes. This is a rewarding topic and I hope that the discussion continues beyond my trip, because Ahmadinejad’s desire to set a political agenda to destroy Israel has roots in our society... First, intellectuals such as myself distance themselves, then the masses of society respond with insults, then, at the political level, the government begins to threaten to attack. What has our nation gained through enmity, insults, and threats other than sanctions, warnings and the prospect of war and destruction? If the two countries declare war on each other, won’t the scholars and intellectuals blame themselves for not having done their share in preventing such a war? It is good if the current discussions go on and we get to explore the question of whether or not we should destroy a nation of eight million, more than two million of whom are Palestinians with Israeli passports who participate in elections, who are tired of the injustices of 60 years of war and long for a peaceful life that will allow their children to grow up free from war and hatred.

“The driver who took me from the airport to the festival venue was an Israeli-born Iranian. I asked him how he sees the situation. He said: ‘All three religions that we have go back to the children of Jacob. He wanted to leave his house to all three of his sons but he realized that the house is the source of the fight. Each son claims it as his own, and they are all right. The house belongs to all of them; Jews, Christians and Muslims. On one hand, my dream is to go to Iran and on the other hand, my fear is that if Iran really is developing nuclear weapons I would die in the first fifteen minutes of the rocket attacks. We live under the shadow of fear.’”

Question: “If you were a filmmaker from another country and were invited to an Iranian film festival, could your participation be interpreted as supporting the Iranian regime?”

“You know, there are more than 2,000 film festivals, 99 percent of which are organized with the support of governments. It is a combination of sponsorships, in which municipalities hosting festivals provide accommodation, ministries of culture in each country provide or cover the costs for the cinema halls, national radio and TV stations organize the media coverage, the private sector covers other costs, and the country’s airlines cover the participants’ airfare. In France, Germany, Korea, Japan, Egypt, Iran, almost everywhere there is a festival, this is how it happens - with the support of the government - because the sales from artistic movies do not cover all the costs of organizing a festival. For instance, the Fajr festival cannot be convened without the support of the government. Before, we were getting accused of making films under the totalitarian regime of Iran, even if our films were critical. Now here this issue is being dealt with using the same logic, because regardless of belonging to left or right we are suffering the chill of the same winter - the winter of totalitarianism. We are all oppressed by the same culture. I mean, intellectuals criticize us for stepping into the zone that is forbidden by policy, even though we both oppose the government that set these policies. We are following the restrictions set by the clergy’s regime even if we are intellectuals.

“There are more than 40 dictators on earth. So, does that mean that we should not travel to any of those countries? Does it mean that in addition to the borders that require us to obtain visas, we also need cultural visas? This will not lead us to freedom. Is the duty of an intellectual to add to the existing borders, or remove them? They tell me, ‘Mr. Hawking has boycotted the festival, you should do the same.’ With all the respect I have for Mr. Hawking, he is not my Vali Faghih (religious point of reference). It’s better for us to give reasons and use logic that upholds human dignity.”

Question: “They have accused you of supporting the apartheid policies of the Israeli government. Is that so?”

“Some of the friends who have signed this letter are being paid by governments in the West, particularly the U.S., and at the time of the Bush presidency they were there as well, working in the universities and getting high salaries. Does that mean they supported Bush’s policies on attacks to Iraq and Afghanistan or approving the Guantanamo Bay detention camp?

“Man lives on the planet Earth. Communities need to communicate with one another. Cultural interaction can clear the way for solving financial and political crises. For sixty years, we went along with boycotting. It is time to start a cultural dialogue, especially on the topic of peace. In Israel I said, ‘I love your people and as far as I have seen, Iranian people also love Israelis.’ There is no problem between the two nations; it is a political issue between the governments. But this has taken root in our culture and the viewpoint of those who have objected to my decision comes from there as well. The mission of an artist is to break these taboos. I am honored to have broken the taboo of interaction with the U.S. through condemning the occupation of the American Embassy. I apologized and I was even criticized for that. I am honored to have defended Afghans at a time when they were considered thieves and smugglers by Iranians. I asked for the racism to stop and opened the schools to their children. I am honored to have shown a beautiful image of Iran by making “Gabbeh”, and now with “The Gardener” I am showing a beautiful picture of Israel so that people who, for years, have not heard anything but negativity about one another get to see these beautiful images. “Gabbeh” and “The Gardener” portray two beautiful images of two countries that have never seen anything but enmity and slander of one another. I wanted to change these views and contribute my share to the peace that will be established in the future. I welcome with open arms accusations against me for breaking the taboos that, even more so than totalitarianism and dictatorship, trap us in false beliefs and habits. Traveling to a country is not the same as accepting that country’s wrongs. Some of the friends who have criticized me, also travel to Israel in secret and teach in Israeli universities. Some of them make trips with political agendas that remain hidden. But whatever I do I make public, and I take pride in that because my field is the arts and culture. I am addressing the cultural issues and complexities that underlie our political issues.

The Gardener (facebook page)

“The cancer of hatred has spread in our culture. If my decision had only evoked the disapproval of the Ministry of Guidance and their order to remove 120 international awards presented to the Makhalbaf family from the Cinema Museum, we could say this was only one element of it. But the other reactions show that this cancer is prevailing in our culture. Although most of the 150 people who have signed this petition are not well-known figures, I am very grateful and glad to have known them. I would accept the petition openly if it had been signed by even just one person with a single strong argument. Unfortunately there is no argument, and the 150 signatures are not enough reason for me either.

“However, I am very happy for a discussion to have started and I believe we have to elevate the level of the conversation. My point is that religious enmity and hatred, particularly in the Middle East, are threatening the security of the whole world. By traveling, by starting a dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups and creating bonds of friendship between the opposing sides, we have to try to reduce this hatred and religious prejudice. Turning away and boycotting worsens the hatred. People are first hurt by one another. They stop to look at each other, then, they keep their distance. Next, they don’t talk to one another. Then they become indifferent to each other. Then they start talking behind each other’s backs. When they hear what each other has said, eventually, they get into a fight. We should not allow ourselves to enter any of these stages, which lead to war. I give the message of peace to the Israelis and I also send their message of peace to the Iranian people. I tell them both that they are friends. It is the governments that prevent this. In Israel, when I was openly criticizing the government, people were applauding so hard that I told them, ‘Who is your government representing when it talks about a war against Iran?’”

“The threats of the Ministry of Guidance have now been actualized...

“In this regard, the issue goes back to the fact that for more than 30 years we have told people that whatever problem we have inside the country goes back to Israel, and so people say ‘down with Israel’. When an Iranian intellectual is accused of being a Zionist, he also insults Israel to defend himself whenever he criticizes the government. So this becomes a habit, and gradually he himself doesn’t understand why he is saying it.

“A respectable person, who, in principle, condemns Israel’s policies, has criticized my trip.

“My response is this. How can we call a 10 year-old child who is born in Israel, by nature or God’s will, an occupant, when he or she would have had another nationality if born in Iran? All Israeli people under the age of 60-who, by the way, form the majority of the population-are born in Israel without having any role in occupying any other country. They were born in their own home country and then we call them occupants! And in our mind we build another Auschwitz.

“I am gratified that this discussion has arisen, because even if we don’t talk about it, the cancer of hatred exists. My trip was like a test that revealed the cancer.

“If the discussion stays on an elevated level and doesn’t get personal, and if we see it as discussing the question of whether having a relationship with Israel is good or bad, then we can move from a crisis of war to a relationship with Israel. We also will learn how to have a conversation among ourselves. I say it is good to travel to Israel and my reasons are:

“First, we are humans and we have the right to live wherever we want, especially where we are born.

“Second, if the majority of Israelis and Palestinians wish for peace, we have to strengthen that peace, not the division.

“Third, the war between the Arabs and Israelis is no longer just between themselves, it has also spread into Iran. Establishing peace among Arabs and Israelis will establish peace in Iran.

“Fourth, before we deal with Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad’s threats, we have to clarify our own mentality. As Iranian intellectuals, do we seek to destroy and boycott Israel, or to resolve the conflict through dialogue? Who has said that we should be indifferent and leave it to the political ambassadors of the Islamic regime to go every now and then-and even then only under cultural pressure coming from us-to lead unsuccessful negotiations? The roots of the conflict in the Middle East are not only political or military. You should go and see for yourself how the religious and ethnic hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, between Arabs and Iranians, between Muslims, Christians and Jews, can create destruction and war... whenever there is a chance for negotiation, the extremists on both sides prevent it.

“There are a thousand reasons for Iranians and Israelis to be friends as people living on one planet, and not a single reason for them to be enemies. Let’s try for a just and a swift peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“If only we could embrace all the Iranian, Palestinian and Israeli children and tell them: ‘Dear ones, don’t listen to your prejudiced fathers. Go and play together!’”

Trailer: The Gardener

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Open Letter to Filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf: Please Be a Messenger of Freedom for Iranian and Palestinian People - We, the undersigned, are a group of Iranian scholars, artists, journalists and activists who are deeply concerned by the recent decision of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to take part in the Jerusalem International Film Festival from July 4-13, 2013. His participation directly violates the International call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of the State of Israel ... 7/14/13

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