Iranian Filmmaker Shunned for Visiting Israel

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Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran's most famous directors, has committed one of that nation's gravest sins: he visited Israel. And now, there's a movement in the country to not only voice "deep dismay" with Makhmalbaf's actions but also pretend he doesn't exist by eliminating any trace of his legacy from the country's film museum.

If you're unfamiliar with Makhmalbaf, he's arguably Iran's finest filmmaker, having written and directed over 20 films. Those films have nabbed him awards like the Federico Fellini Honor from the U.N. in 2001, prizes and recognition from film festivals like Cannes, and honorary degrees at universities in France and Scotland.  Politically, the filmmaker has voiced his disapproval with Iran's repressive government—he left the country after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Earlier this month, he was invited and accepted an invite to the Jerusalem Film Festival, which the London-based director accepted, telling The Guardian that he went as "an ambassador for peace." He was invited to screen The Gardener, a film about an Iranian filmmaker and his son visiting Israel. And the film went over well with festival-goers, Makhmalbaf said:

"There was an amazing reaction, they showed The Gardener three times and each time the theatre was full and hundreds of people queuing up outside who wanted to come in," he said. "They clapped for so long. And I asked them if you are so much interested in our art, why is that your government is going to attack us?" 

That's a brave, politically-charged question to ask considering Israel's not-so-veiled hints at preemptively striking Iran in recent months. And that question, of course, is also why Makhmalbaf isn't a persona non grata in his native Iran. Because of a history of tension between the two countries and Israel's ongoing conflict in West Bank and Gaza, Iranians have been forbidden to visit Israel and could face five years in prison for it—the fine print of Iranian passports states that the document doesn't afford them travel to "occupied Palestine," a.k.a. Israel.  

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One of the strongest and most visceral responses to Makhmalbaf's visit came from Javad Shamaqdari, the director of the Iranian Cinema Organization. Shamaqdari wants the Film Museum of Iran to eliminate its section dedicated to Makhmalbaf and his works. "It is appropriate in this month (Ramadan), the last Friday of which will witness demonstrations by millions of Muslims against the Zionists, that the Film Museum of Iran is cleansed of the filmmaker’s memorabilia," Shamaqdari wrote in a letter obtained by the Tehran TimesAnd The Guardian notes that Iranian opposition leaders also voiced their concern with the director's visit to a country with "apartheid" policies.

At the same time, Makhmalbaf has plenty of allies — and not just in Jersualem movie theaters. "The removal of the items will never lead to the removal of his name and his awards from the written history," filmmaker Fereidun Jeirani wrote in a letter in response Shamaqdari. "I request that you cancel the order and let the Film Museum (of Iran) eschew politics," Jeirani adds, possibly raising the question if Iran's politics and its art could ever be separated from each another. The film museum has not responded to Shamaqdari's request. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.