Iranian Filmmaker speaks out against Cultural Boycotts

In addition to Iran’s geopolitical beef with Israel, the Islamic Republic has instilled a fierce cultural taboo against all things Israeli. Last year, an Iranian soccer team canceled a match against a Serbian team because it had an Israeli coach. So powerful is this taboo that it extends even to Iranians living in exile–particularly if they remain prominent in their homeland.

iranian-filmmakerAsk Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He visited Israel last week for the 30th annual Jerusalem Film Festival, where he was welcomed as a guest of honor and his latest film–“The Gardener,” shot in the Israeli city of Haifa–was screened for enthusiastic audiences.

In making the trip, the 57-year-old Mr. Makhmalbaf was the most prominent Iranian to visit Israel since the 1979 Iranian revolution. It’s no surprise that he was the one to flout the ban: Mr. Makhmalbaf has lived outside of his homeland since 2005, the year Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, and he was a key figure in the Green opposition movement. Eighteen years ago, he was also the first Iranian filmmaker to release a commercial film in Israel.

“When I sent ‘Gabbeh’ to Israel, I had many troubles in Iran,” Mr. Makhmalbaf told me on Thursday by phone from London, his home now. “They criticized me and said ‘You are an Israeli,’ and ‘You sold your soul to Satan.’ “Now, he points out, it’s common for Iranian filmmakers to send their work to the Jewish state. “I am honored to have opened the door of Iranian cinema to Israel and to other Iranian filmmakers. And now I am honored to open the door of taboo by journeying to Israel.”

He was struck by what a “completely open” society he found. “I went to Israel, I criticized the government of Israel, and I gave a message of peace and love from Iranian artists to the Israeli people. In Iran, this is impossible.”

Mr. Makhmalbaf has firsthand knowledge of the zealotry that underpins the Iranian regime: As a teenager in pre-revolutionary Iran, he was a passionate supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and was imprisoned for stabbing one of the shah’s police officers. But he broke with Islamism in the 1980s; since then, several of his 20 feature films have been banned in Iran. His trip to Israel has further provoked the regime.

The director of the Iranian Cinema Organization, Javad Shamaghradi, wrote a letter to the national film museum accusing Mr. Makhmalbaf of taking a “stand against the greatness of the Iranian nation” by pursuing his “wicked” award from the Israelis. With the film director accepting “the embrace of the usurpers of Jerusalem and the criminal Zionism,” Mr. Shamaqradi said, the museum should be “cleansed of the filmmaker’s memorabilia.”

That Iranian officialdom would condemn Mr. Makhmalbaf is no surprise. But then there are Iranian professors, artists, intellectuals and activists, commonly regarded as reformers, who have sided with the regime by similarly criticizing Mr. Makhmalbaf for his trip.

These critics, who include professors at American universities such as Hamid Dabashi (Columbia), Ali Mirsepassi (New York University) and Alireza Doostdar (University of Chicago), also wrote an open letter condemning Mr. Makhmalbaf. Describing themselves as “human beings of conscience,” these critics deplored his “disregard for the global movement for Palestinian human rights and the implicit support for Israel’s apartheid policies.”

What does Mr. Makhmalbaf make of these critics, some of whom he regards as friends? “I answer them: Most of you are working in America and Europe and you get money from the American government and European government and you are working for universities funded by the government. Does that mean you confirm every bad thing done by the government? Of course not,” he says. “The people that support cultural boycott are making a huge mistake. It’s like if someone is sick and you say, ‘Medicine is forbidden.” Cultural activities, art, is like medicine.”

By Barry Weiss

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