Amid Mohammad Rasoulof's Berlinale win for There Is No Evil, revisiting his 2009 tour de force, The White Meadows
Mohammad Rasoulof’s concern with portraying normal people who carry out everyday chores for authoritarian societies goes back to his 2009 film The White Meadows — a powerful work which established the acclaimed filmmaker as a strident and unique voice in Iranian cinema.
There is no Evil (2020) by Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof won the Golden Bear at the recently concluded Berlin Film Festival.
The director’s observations on his latest award-winning work obliquely connect it to his earlier film The White Meadows (2009).
This essay revisits The White Meadows, looking at this important film afresh in the context of Rasoulof’s statement about There is no Evil.
Within days of winning the top prize — the prestigious Golden Bear — at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, for There is no Evil, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof has been summoned to serve a one-year jail sentence.
Rasoulof was convicted last year of producing “anti-government propaganda”, and banned from making films for a period of two years. In previous run-ins with the Iranian regime, he had been sentenced to six years in prison and placed on a two-decade filmmaking ban in 2011, along with the director Jafar Panahi, on charges that included “filming without a permit” and “making propaganda”. (Rasoulof appealed against the sentence, which was then reduced to a year. His passport was confiscated by the authorities in 2013.)
There is no Evil (2020) — which he filmed in secret — brings together four stories on the theme of capital punishment and, according to the director, derives certain elements from his own experiences. Addressing journalists over Skype, Rasoulof said that one of the four episodes in There is no Evil is based on a man who interrogated the director after his arrest and incarceration in Iran.
“After following the man for a while, I realised how normal he was and how much he resembled all other people. I realised that there was no monster involved, there was no evil in front of me, just a person who has not questioned his actions,” Rasoulof said.
The filmmaker’s concern with portraying normal people who carry out everyday chores for authoritarian societies has an interesting antecedent. This goes back to his 2009 film Wild Meadows — a powerful work which established Rasoulof as a strident and unique voice in Iranian cinema.
The narrative of The White Meadows is unambiguously allegorical. The protagonist Rahmat — a collector of tears and recorder of grief — rows a small boat through the salt-encrusted, remote islands scattered across a vast, saline water lake. He moves from one island to another to gather the tears of grieving men and women trapped in painful tragedies. He watches communities living on these islands brutalise and torture fellow inhabitants as part of bizarre rituals — acts carried out with fervent passion. With deft hands, he gathers the tears from the eyes of women and men.
Having completed his day’s work, Rahmat returns to a verdant mainland, with a bottleful of tears; he has to now complete his final task. He goes to a house where he meets an old man in a wheelchair, who exudes an air of authority even in his frailty. In a practised ritual, Rahmat gently washes the feet of the ailing patriarch with his bottle of tears and carefully dries them with his scarf. While leaving the room, the patriarch asks him if everyone is well. Rahmat assures him they are. Critics have speculated that the old man symbolises the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Rahamat, like the interrogator mentioned by Rasoulof, is part of a system that thrives on the grief of people, literally drawing its raw material from their humiliation, torture and death. But Rahmat himself is not evil; he is capable of occasional compassion. At the same time, he is servile to the brutal system of which he is an integral part. It is this servility which makes him fulfil his task of harvesting tears with dogged precision, undeterred by the human suffering and torture that unfold in his path.
One is reminded of Hannah Arendt’s famous, but often misunderstood, notion of the ‘banality of evil’ in her 1963 book on Adolf Eichmann — the Nazi operative who is considered one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Arendt writes of Eichmann: “I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer which made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer — at least the very effective one now on trial — was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”
Eichmann, in Arendt’s eyes, seemed to have been merely an efficient functionary who was trying to climb the bureaucratic ladder within the Third Reich. Did Rahmat reflect the same ordinariness and devotion to duty that Eichmann showed in his ‘job’? Rasoulof keeps things ambiguous by avoiding any reference to the rewards that come with Rahmat’s backbreaking work on those remote islands. After all the director was operating within the internal logic of an allegory and, like most Iranian political filmmakers, had taken recourse to symbolism. The director refuses to treat the film like a puzzle which needs to be solved. He keeps the narrative focused on Rahmat, his stoic acceptance of his duty even in the face of disturbing events on the islands.
As authoritarian regimes across the world clamp down on artistes, dissenters and critics, they rely on officers and bureaucrats like Rahmat, or Rasoulof’s Iranian interrogator — seemingly normal individuals, who tirelessly run the well-oiled machines of oppression. They are human beings who are capable of empathy, but whose ruthlessness is a product of their vacuous inner selves.
American philosopher Judith Butler, while commenting on Arendt’s work, has observed that it is not evil which is banal. The acts perpetrated by Eichmann are monstrous and gruesome. “What had become banal — and astonishingly so — was the failure to think,” Butler remarks in her critique of Arendt. It is the demise of thinking that Rasoulof draws our attention to when he depicts the men and women who perform brutal roles on a daily basis, without reflection or ideological investment. This not a predicament of Iran alone, but of many countries across the world.
Dr Indranil Bhattacharya is professor — Screen Studies and Research at FTII
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