There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. This long film (150 minutes) was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world. As with several other leading Iranian directors (e.g. Jafar Panahi), it is difficult to keep track of how they manage to maintain some freedom in the face of a government determined to stop them. Rasoulef’s strategy with this film was to make four short films on the same theme (shorts attract less attention) and to organise a second unit to film outdoor scenes. Other parts of the films were shot in remote parts of Iran where the activity is less visible. (The ‘ban’ in practice means that the government makes it very difficult to be a filmmaker by preventing travel abroad, threatening imprisonment and more or less forcing filmmakers to operate secretly.)
Rasoulef’s subject is public execution by hanging (Iran has one of the highest rates of executions globally). Instead of focusing directly on the issue of capital punishment or whether individuals are innocent or guilty, Rasoulef focuses on the invidious ways in which the Iranian system forces moral responsibility onto anyone who ‘resists’. ‘Ordinary’ men are forced to become executioners through the convoluted process of national military service and women find themselves implicated in the the trauma experienced by their partners. Refusal to act as an executioner has all kinds of possible consequences.
Each short film is notionally separate in this compendium. The screen fades to black at the end of each story and the blank screen is held for several seconds before a new story begins. The actors in each story are different but apart from the first film, the principal characters are placed in similar roles and might be imagined as the same characters at different stages of their lives. ‘There is No Evil’ is actually the title of the first film which is set in a major city, presumably Tehran. It is presented as a social realist drama but the plotline is almost like a procedural account of the day in the life of a family. I don’t want to spoil what some reviewers see as the strongest story. I’ll just say it doesn’t turn out as you might expect although there are one or two hints in the presentation that might prepare you. The second film is entitled: ‘She Said: “You Can Do It”‘ and it has a much more familiar action/thriller genre structure. A group of soldiers are sleeping in a dormitory room inside a prison. One of them has been designated as the executioner of a prisoner in the early hours of the next morning. He doesn’t want to do it but he knows that if he doesn’t carry out the order he won’t be able to complete his compulsory military training and in turn he won’t be able to get a driving licence or a passport to leave the country. Some of the other soldiers are sympathetic, others are simply angry that he has woken them up with his moaning. Various options are presented and one requires him to ‘break out’ of the prison building. Another is to pay one of the others to take his place, but the fee is impossible.
The third film ‘Birthday’ takes us out of the city as a soldier on leave visits his girlfriend in the country. She lives on a farm with a couple of old houses. He approaches the main house by a roundabout route and hides his uniform in the bushes before reaching the house. He wants to propose to the girl on her birthday but finds himself joining an unexpected family gathering that turns out to be difficult for him. Finally, ‘Kiss Me’ is a story about a young woman (played by the director’s daughter Baran) who makes a return visit to Iran from Germany to stay with her uncle and his partner. They live in a remote mountainous part of the country. It is clear that the girl knows little about her uncle because she left the country when she was small but now he has something to tell her that he struggles to articulate. The film’s title relates, I think, to a song the uncle sings when the trio are preparing a celebration meal. Like all the other three films, this story is presented in CinemaScope and I found the cinematography by Ashkan Ashkani breathtakingly beautiful even as the relationship between the girl and her uncle becomes more strained. This film also seems much more imbued with symbolism than the others. The uncle’s partner shows the girl how to look after the beehives just below the house and I couldn’t help remembering Victor Erice’s fabulous film The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena, Spain 1973). There are bee-keepers in other films but in Erice’s mysterious film the symbolism is all important as the narrative is set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when characters like the bee-keeper father were unable to speak out against the fascists in power for fear of arrest and punishment. ‘Kiss Me’ also makes excellent use of long-shot compositions, particularly in relation to the uncle’s battle with a fox. He has been unable to stop the fox eating the couple’s chickens but he finds himself also unable to shoot it.
I’ve read several reviews of the film and I seem to be on my own in valuing the last film as the one I liked most but that’s not a problem – I liked the others too. This film feels like a major achievement by an important filmmaker. It seems fitting that the last film was shot in the same region as several of Abbas Kiarostami’s films and that it also reminds us of some of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey 2011). In fact there are a host of films in which characters are exiled to or required to investigate incidents in remote areas across Asia. The massive long shots of a single vehicle snaking across the hills is a striking image. It is sometimes possible, I think, to forget that Iran is a large country with a varied geography and a large diverse population with different local cultures. This film manages to introduce us to characters who face similar moral questions in diverse situations. It’s a great artistic achievement and a challenge to the inhuman behaviour of those in power as well as to those who unthinkingly accept the ideologies of powerful regimes around the world. The director himself explains himself in an interview given to Variety:
The four components of the film do deal with the death penalty, but they go further. They are more generally about disobedience and the fact that when you resist a system – when you resist against a power – what is the responsibility that you take? Do you take responsibility for your own resistance, for saying no? And what’s the price that you have to pay for that? If I take my own example, I can say that by resisting . . . I’ve deprived myself of many aspects of life, but I’m glad that I’m resisting. Although I haven’t been able to make it look as beautiful as I wanted in this film, I still think that the result of this resistance is positive . . . and it makes me want to go on resisting against the absurd and excessive censorship system that we live in. (Interview by Nick Vivarelli, Variety, 20 February 2020)
The film will be released in the UK by New Wave, one of the best independent distributors around. I urge you to get to see it in a cinema.