Scene from 'Manuscript's don't burn' by Mohammed Rasoulof  (source: Festival Cannes)

Mohammed Rasoulof's ''Manuscripts Don't Burn''
Iranian Agents as Killers

The Islamic Republic's intelligence service is unmasked for the first time in a film based on a series of murders of Iranian writers and intellectuals in the late 1990s. Stefan Buchen introduces the new movie by director Mohammed Rasoulof

This is a film about murder. You can sense it from the first scene. A gaunt man with a full beard and blood on his fingers runs to a car where a man with a paunch and a leather jacket is waiting. The setting is ominous: dusty and desolate with the outlines of a dilapidated ruin emerging in the background. The two men speed away.

The initial developments are baffling. In this new film by Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, which has just been premiered in Cannes, it takes a while to realise the motives of the two perpetrators, as well as who is pulling the strings.

The men might just as well have been Mafiosi despatched by a crime syndicate baron. But they are agents working for the national intelligence service. They are pursuing a domestic adversary: Writers and intellectuals accused of treason and links to foreign enemies. The viewer discovers incidentally that the men are acting upon a Sharia judgement. From their perspective, they are not committing murder, but carrying out a legal execution order.

Mirror of the past

Hushang Golshiri (photo: iran emrooz)
Committed to the fight for free speech and the abolition of censorship in Iran: Renowned Persian writer Hushang Golshiri was one of the co-founders of the Iranian Writers' Association

​​The film "Manuscripts don't burn" (dastneveshteha ne-misuzand) is based on a chain of contemporary historical events that shook Iran in the late 1990s, but that has largely been forgotten today. In its conflict with the Writers' Association, the last institution to demand free speech and insist upon its political independence within the authoritarian state, the intelligence agency resorted to increasingly brutal methods.

Some literary figures – such as Hushang Golshiri – were detained, while others were killed – for example the poet Mohammad Mokhtari and the writer Mohammad Dja'far Puyandeh. The series of killings – known as the Chain Murders of Iran – also targeted Parwaneh and Dariush Forouhar, a married couple active in politics linked to intellectual circles and espousing the spiritual teachings of former democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. They were assassinated in a knife attack in their home in November 1998.

None of these historical figures are redrawn exactly in Rasoulof's film. But the action bristles with allusions to actual events. At the heart of the story are recollections of the attack on a bus carrying 21 Iranian writers to a poetry congress in Armenia. As it was travelling through the mountains, the driver attempts to plunge the bus over a cliff. He jerks the steering wheel and jumps out. But the attack fails when the bus hits a boulder. The driver was a secret service agent.

While we don't see any images of this event, it is recreated through the recollections of the film's protagonists. It provides a resonant backdrop that underpins the entire film. The writer Kasra was on the bus and wrote an eyewitness report of what happened. Because he knows that the intelligence agency could find the manuscript and destroy it, he distributes copies of it to friends to hide.

Trying to extinguishing memory

Khosro was the intelligence service agent driving the bus at the time. Now he and his boss are under orders to find all those with a copy of the report and neutralise them – thereby preventing any publication and extinguishing all memory of the failed bus attack.

Faraj Sarkohi (photo: DW)
"For the first time in Iranian cinematic history, a film unmasks the secret service," says literary critic Faraj Sarkohi, detained in 1996 as one of the leaders of a writers' initiative against censorship and sentenced to death in a secret trial one year later

​​"This is the first time a director has dared to make a film about the intelligence service murders. For the first time in Iranian cinematic history, a film unmasks the secret service. From the regime's point of view, this is more serious than criticising the Supreme Leader," says literary critic Faraj Sarkohi. He was one of the first people to see the final version of the movie.

Sarkohi was in fact a passenger on the bus that was very nearly driven over a cliff, and did in fact write an eyewitness report of what occurred that day. Not only did Sarkohi survive this assassination attempt, he also survived detention and torture in a secret service jail. He was released thanks to the efforts of human rights organisations and European governments, and now lives in Frankfurt, Germany. Rasoulof's movie serves as a memorial to his suffering, and the lives of those who were murdered.

Not that the film is a piece of documentary-style fiction. It dismantles reality and presents it in a new guise, just as any good artwork must do. It is not always clear in which era the action is set. On the one hand, the viewer feels transported back 15 years to the period c. On the other hand, he could just as well be in the present because the film's protagonists are not experiencing the bus attack 15 years ago, they are simply "recalling" it.

Also, the discussions that take place among the intellectuals about the point of resistance and substantial criticism of the regime in the age of Twitter and the "network generation" trigger associations with the here and now. 

Precise psychology analysis

The film's strength lies in its precise analysis of the psychology of the relationship between perpetrators and victims. The director's own first-hand experience of repressive action taken against him by the regime in recent years has certainly given him a key insight into this. During work on a film project in 2009, the set was stormed by security service agents and Rasoulof's office in Tehran was searched. In early 2010, he spent several weeks at Evin prison, in the block reserved for political prisoners. "Of course, these experiences have left their mark on me," says the director.

Mohammed Rasoulof (photo: Festival Cannes)
"Rasoulof's movie shows the obduracy and the perfidy of the intelligence service in a dictatorship," Stefan Buchen writes

​​The movie portrays agent Khosro as a man from a humble background who barely has enough money to fund treatment for his sick child. He earns money by carrying out jobs for the secret service. Any niggling doubts he may have over the legality of his actions are swiftly dispelled by his boss Morteza. Despite the suffering they inflict on their victims, both perpetrators are convinced they are on the right side of the tracks.

A change of heart such as that experienced by the lead protagonist in the German film "The Lives of Others", when a Stasi agent questions his actions, feels empathy for the artist he is spying on and finally sabotages the orders of his superior, does not feature in "Manuscripts don't burn".

Rasoulof's movie shows the obduracy and the perfidy of the intelligence service in a dictatorship: how it eats away at the self-esteem of critical intellectuals and saps the trust of those who criticise the regime. In the end, the writer suspects his long-time friend is working as a spy for the secret service.

"The characters of the two secret service killers are very well drawn," confirms Faraj Sarkohi. "When I saw the scenes featuring the two perpetrators, all the memories flooded back and I saw the guys who tortured me back then."

The cinema of others

The director has pulled of a real coup. Unlike the artists in his film, he was able to conceal his work from the spies in Iran and even smuggle it out of the country. Now he is presenting it to international audiences at the Cannes film festival, and the Iranian intelligence agency will also be aware that the film is being premiered there.

But in Cannes, Rasoulof stands in the shadow of his better-known compatriot and Oscar prize-winner Asghar Farhadi, whose new film "Le passé" ("Gozashteh") has been nominated to win a Golden Palm. Farhadi's family dramas have won him favour in both the West and with the rulers back home in Iran. The culture ministry in Tehran has already authorised the screening of "Gozashteh".

As far as Rasoulof is concerned, these are movies for a different kind of audience. "My film certainly won't be screened in Iran," he says tersely. That's the price you pay for making a political movie.

Stefan Buchen

© 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

Stefan Buchen works as a television journalist for Germany's national television ARD. He is the author of the documentary film "Die Lügen vom Dienst – der BND und der Irakkrieg" (Intelligence Service Lies – the German Federal Intelligence Service and the Iraq War).

More on this topic