By Beverly Andrews
Moshen Makmalbaf is one of Iran’s most celebrated artists and among the world’s most intriguing film makers. Under his influence, his family, including his wife, two daughters and one son, have all become filmmakers in their own right.
As a teenager Makmalbaf was a political dissident who fought against the regime of the Shah. As a result of his political activism he was imprisoned and tortured, leaving him temporarily unable to walk.
But, as his cinematic career blossomed, Makmalbaf grew increasingly disillusioned with the theocracy he once fought for and he now lives in exile with the rest of his immediate family.
However, Makmalbaf ‘s geographic exile has not curtailed his creative output and many cinema critics are citing his latest film, The President, as his best yet. The film looks at the fall of a despotic ruler, whose rapid descent from power forces him on a desperate journey where, accompanied by his beloved grandson, he is forced to confront the victims of his many crimes.
Given the fact that the film is in many ways a human tragedy in its piercing examination of a man who learns too late the consequences of his actions, it is somewhat surprising that it opens with a comical moment where the unnamed president, seated in his opulent presidential mansion, decides to demonstrate his supreme power to his impressionable grandson. He picks up the telephone and orders the capital’s lights to be switched off. Moments later he picks up the telephone again and gives an order that they should now be switched back on.
His grandson, completely enthralled by this spectacle, asks if he can do the same thing and the president consents. He picks up the telephone once more and hands it to the young boy, who gives the order that the lights be switched off, they are and for the second time we hear the sounds of chaos on the streets below, as cars collide.
But when the child orders that the lights be switched back on, they are not, because this simple act has triggered a revolt that quickly sweeps through the country.
The president and his family are forced to flee and en route to the airport the president’s indulged daughters comically argue over which one, with their financial extravagance and cruelty, was most responsible for the family’s downfall. Once they arrive at the airport though only the wife and the two daughters depart. As the president chooses to remain behind with his grandson rationalizing, wrongly it turns out, that the current situation is temporary and will soon pass. It does not and the film charts the pairs desperate journey to escape the chaos that the President’s reign has caused.
The President written by Makmalbaf and his wife Marzyeh Meshkiny is an examination of the horrors of dictatorship as well as the chaos which can ensue as a political regime collapses. In a recent interview to promote the film Makmalbaf notes: “The script for The President was written and re-written several times, and the story went through several incarnations. But the initial spark came about eight years ago when I was in Afghanistan. As I overlooked the city of Kabul from the rubble of the destroyed Darul Aman Palace, a thought suddenly entered my mind: What if, when a president was embracing his child and looking out of their big palace window over “their” city, the President suddenly decided to entertain his child through a demonstration of absolute power: by turning all the lights, in the entire city, on and off, just for fun? And what if those lights that were shut off during the game suddenly did not turn back on? What happens then? It was this imaginary scenario that was the initial spark that later led to the story of The President.
The President echoes events which have taken place throughout the Middle East during the Arab spring
Later on, in the heat of the Arab spring, I rewrote the script for The President. I learned a lot by following the news of the different revolutions taking place at the time. I witnessed how these despotic dictators could create national tragedies, which resulted in their overthrow and a revolution. And I also saw how the violence of those revolutions created further new tragedies, and on many occasions, can lead to new forms of dictatorship, violence and tyranny. “
Although The President echoes events which have taken place throughout the Middle East during the Arab spring, it also references the collapse of several east European regimes and in particular that of Romania’s once powerful Nicolae Ceausescu, a leader whose fall from grace happened so quickly that it took many western political observers by surprise. Makmalbaf observed: “There are some common threads that exist, no matter where the events take place. First there is a dictator, who behaves with impunity and oppresses the people of the country. This eventually leads to the collapse of the dictatorial regime. Then, once the regime has fallen, there is further violence involved during the revolution. And here again there are certain common consequences stemming from this revolutionary violence.”
There are common threads that exist, no matter where the events take place and there are also common consequences stemming from revolutionary violence
As Makmalbaf ‘s fictional President and his grandson go on their desperate journey of escape, a journey that requires them to disguise themselves as nomadic travellers, his life changes beyond all recognition. At one point, in order to maintain this disguise, the president actually carries a young injured political prisoner, who in fact was the assassin of his own son. It is almost as if his journey is a kind of karmic retribution for his long years of misrule.
As the president is continually forced to confront his past, something miraculous happens. As we, the audience watch, we begin to feel sorry for him and even have the ever so sneaky feeling that because of the humiliations he is forced to suffer, if given the opportunity and allowed back in power, is it possible that he just might make a just leader.
But in the end he is never given the opportunity since his true identity and that of his grandson are discovered and they are threatened with execution. However, one of the former political prisoners points out that if they kill the president for his crimes, with no legal mandate to do so, then are they any better than he is? The film concludes with this question, leaving the audience to wonder what the crowd’s ultimate decision will be.