Mohammad Rasoulof tackles Iran’s corruption in his most personal film yet
2017-06-15 14:29:15 -
A playful dark comedy taking aim at the politics, privilege and hypocrisy of the art world in a Stockholm modern art museum garnered the Palme d’Or in this year’s Cannes competition.

With his anecdotal narrative, Ruben Ostlund’s sweetly satirical The Square took the golden palm for delivering laughs, discomfort and insight in equal measure at a glittering event where its themes of human foibles in art, elitism and money are particularly apt.

The Grand Prix du Jury, meanwhile, went to the more overtly political true story of Act Up, the French Aids activist movement from the 80s and 90s. Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute captured the radical ethos of the movement and its willingness to upset conventional practice and adhere and alienate support in varying measures.

In the official sidebar selection Un Certain Regard, Mohammad Rasoulof won the top prize for A Man of Integrity. Titled Lerd (Dregs) in Persian, it’s the story of 35-year-old Reza, who has set up a goldfish farm in the north of Iran along with his young son and school headmistress wife.

We soon get a sense that he is a self-restrained radical who has given up fighting an authoritarian system and is now opting for a ‘normal’ life. It’s just that when trouble, in the form of local corruption, provokes his old obstinate demons that simply will not allow him to play along.

By the now, Rasoulof has ensured that we, the audience, have sufficiently endured Reza’s trials and tribulations and we understand how things work; the dilemma between pragmatism and integrity has been skilfully put in our own hands as much as in Reza’s. Like him, we need to think it over before making any critical decisions.

A Man of Integrity is Rasoulof’s most overtly autobiographical film to date. He himself went through the ringer of small-time bribery 20 years ago when he made advertising shorts for a living. And he’s no stranger to winning at Cannes, either: one of his previous, more elliptically political films, Be Omid e Didar (Good Bye), won him the best director nod in Un Certain Regard in 2011.

Under house arrest for ‘propaganda acts hostile to the republic’, Rasoulof could not accept his award at Cannes that year. Subsequently given six years in jail, the sentence was commuted to one year, but still has not been served. His films are still not shown in his own Iran.

In 2013 Rasoulof travelled clandestinely to Cannes to accompany Manuscripts Don’t Burn just at the moment Hassan Rohani replaced Ahmadnejad as president of the Islamic Republic. Now living between Hamburg and Tehran, he saw his latest film played in Cannes on 19 May the same day that moderate President Rohani was convincingly re-elected.

Despite the bitterness of his stories and the unfair personal tragedies of his emblematic protagonists, Rasoulof is an optimist. “For me Rohani brings hope,” he has said. “The Rohani era has not yet really started... after the eight years during which Ahmadinejad brought the country to ruin... ” 

Meanwhile, Rasoulof will continue his practice of presenting one script to satisfy the censorship board while shooting his own version, awaiting a complex procedure of bureaucratic punishment.

As we patiently await the Tehran retrospective of his work, the filmmaking of Mohammad Rasoulof will continue to provide us with a barometer of what is really happening, between the legal and the possible, in an Iran that for now tentatively steps westward.
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