Part of the Book: Salam Cinema (Films of Makhmalbaf Family)
Written by: KIM Ji-Seok
A Cinematic Gem:
The Worldview of A Moment of Innocence
A Moment of Innocence is the film that best expresses Makhmalbaf’s understanding of truth as something that can only be understood from various perspectives. In order to communicate this, he creates a new cinematic form, producing a most complex structure around the simplest external story. There must be a reason why Makhmalbaf has chosen such a form. Ultimately, he tells a story about love and reconciliation through multiple perspectives on truth, combining a lofty ideal with a novel form to achieve the integration of his cinematic vision.
Multifaceted Narrative Structure
A Moment of Innocence presents the filming of an incident in which Makhmalbaf himself stabbed a policeman during the pre-revolutionary regime of the Shah. First, the film shows Makhmalbaf, the aggressor in the incident, and the former policeman, the victim, auditioning young men to play their younger selves. Then it shows the process of making the film. It concludes with the completed version of the incident. This is the sequence breakdown:
1.The ex-policeman visits Makhmalbaf’s home.
2. Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman audition young actors to play their younger selves.
3. The ex-policeman takes his younger self to the tailor to get a police uniform and coaches him on how to act.
4. The ex-policeman coaches his younger self on the street.
5. Makhmalbaf and his younger self search for an actress.
6. The younger Makhmalbaf has a conversation with a girl.
7. The ex-policeman has a conversation with his younger self at his home.
8. Makhmalbaf takes his younger self along with him on location.
9. The young Makhmalbaf and the girl rehearse together.
10.The ex-policeman and his younger self rehearse on the street.
11.The scene of the assault is filmed.
12. The ex-policeman leaves the set because he is unhappy with the film.
13. The completed version of the assault is shown.
The basic story of the film is simply the process of filmmaking. However, through this, Makhmalbaf not only depicts character psychology and the past incident, but also his regret for his own past actions sublimates all this into a moment of love and reconciliation. With this theme, Makhmalbaf develops a multifaceted narrative structure in order to tell many stories within the one simple story. The depiction of the process of filmmaking, which is the main framework of the film, is self-reflexive and demands the adoption of the documentary mode. However, whether it is real documentary is another question. Indeed, the process of making A Moment of Innocence itself is not a documentary one. Rather, Makhmalbaf adopts documentary as a vehicle for confession and psychological investigation.
Psychological investigation is one of Makhmalbaf’s enduring concerns. In A Moment of Innocence, the psychological state of the ex-policeman playing the present-day Nasoria -- the policeman Makhmalbaf assaulted -- and the young men who play the young Nasoria and the young Makhmalbaf are detailed through their dialog. For example, in Sequence 2, the ex-policeman leaves the set because he is dissatisfied with the young man playing his younger self. As we see him from behind, walking down the snow-covered road in a long-shot long take, we hear Makhmalbaf and his assistant, Zinal off-screen. “I’m afraid he’ll go back home,” says Zinal. “Don’t worry,” replies Makhmalbaf. “He’ll be back.” As the ex-policeman disappears from view, Zinal runs after him. But after a while the ex-policeman returns by himself, with the idea of embellishing the incident with a love story. (Of course, this is not the ex-policeman’s wish, but Makhmalbaf’s. However, the documentary form of the film leads the audience to understand it as the ex-policeman’s idea.) Therefore, he wants a good-looking actor to play his younger self. Nevertheless, because he also wants to participate in the filmmaking, he compromises. Later in the film, his dissatisfaction bursts through again and he declares that he will quit again when he realizes that the scene where he expected a beautiful rendezvous with a girl he loved has been integrated into the assault incident, Because he wants to evoke the ex-policeman’s psychological responses, Makhmalbaf resolutely omits the scene between sequences 1 and 2 where he and the ex-policeman would have discussed the direction of the film and the reenactment of the incident. This makes it seem as though the film within the film in A Moment of Innocence is an open film. In other words, it seems as though Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman had no prior agreement about what they would film beyond the actual assault incident itself. It only seems this way, because in fact the ex-policeman’s ‘ideas’ are Makhmalbaf’s. However, even though both sets of ideas may originate with Makhmalbaf, what is significant is that this foregrounds the possibility of two different ways of directing a single subject matter.
Makhmalbaf’s cinematic vision can be summed up as “open cinema.” And his vision of open cinema is one where there are no boundaries set about who can be the producing subject, or filmmaker. Institutionalized film production generally only allows so-called professionals to be producing subjects, but Makhmalbaf believes filmmaking should be open to all. Of course, there are various historical examples of non-professionals participating in the institutionalized cinema. The Italian Neo-realist films stand out in this regard. Outside institutionalized cinema, examples include the guerilla Third Cinema filmmakers of South America and the collective production method that suited their political ideology, the amateur filmmakers who appeared as the film equipment got smaller and lighter, and short-film and experimental filmmakers. All have extended the boundaries around the filmmaking subject. However, Makhmalbaf thinks about extending this boundary in a different way. By adopting a documentary form of fiction as a method of narration, Makhmalbaf opens a door for ordinary people to participate in the filmmaking process. In other words, he opens the door to people who are further removed from filmmaking than semi-professionals led to invest their personal assets into film by pre-existing interest in cinema or a conviction that film can convey their political beliefs. Usually, ordinary people appear in films as actors but in Makhmalbaf’s films they participate in a different way than, say, in neo-realist films. In A Moment of Innocence, not only does the ex-policeman play his part, but he also participates in determining the narrative of the film. He tells the actor playing the young policeman about his experiences, simultaneously revealing his psychology and also intervening in the direction that Makhmalbaf has set up for the reenactment of the assault. Makhmalbaf believes this technique is the most reliable in the search for truth that lies at the heart of filmmaking. It is also the most democratic and open method of incorporating to the utmost the opinions of ordinary people about the established theme or direction of a film. The ex-policeman is not the only one who performs both as actor and determiner of the narrative by revealing his thoughts. Others include the two youths who play the young Makhmalbaf and the young policeman, and the girl who plays the young Makhmalbaf’s cousin. They also play their roles and simultaneously influence the flow of the narrative by disclosing their thoughts and opinions.
In the narrative of A Moment of Innocence, in addition to psychological investigation, Makhmalbaf also presents confession. During the preparation and filming of the reenactment, both the ex-policeman playing the victim Nasoria and the aggressor Makhmalbaf make confessions in conversations with their younger selves. While the ex-policeman functions as an agent of Nasoria’s narration, Makhmalbaf tells more about himself in general and places his confession in the process of unfolding the story. For example, the revelation that the girl who helped him to attack the policeman is his cousin, that now she is married to someone else, and that she has a daughter comes in his conversation with the young Makhmalbaf. Determined to ask the daughter, who looks exactly like her mother, to play her mother’s younger self, he visits his cousin. This scene implies their past romance, but ends without revealing the cousin’s face on screen. However, what Makhmalbaf really wants to do in this scene is to confess to the audience that the whole assault was wrong. At the end of the film, this confession is communicated indirectly: unlike what really happened, the victim and the aggressor draw a flower and some bread instead of a gun and a knife. Having the conversation between the young Makhmalbaf, who is an agent of Makhmalbaf’s narration, and the girl consistently about love and reconciliation is another way of revealing these thoughts.
Another reason for Makhmalbaf to choose the documentary mode is his desire to preserve realistic ways of life in Iran today. Makhmalbaf previously examined the way of life and thinking of contemporary Iranians in Saalam Cinema by using actor auditions, and he portrays the actual lives of young Iranians again in A Moment of Innocence. Expressing affection by putting a flower or a leaf in a book borrowed from a loved one is a custom that seems to have survived unchanged from Makhmalbaf’s youth. But where Makhmalbaf cried for revolution and violence then, today’s young people talk about love and harmony. And of course, as manifested through the complaints of his cousin’s daughter, Makhmalbaf openly displays Iranian young people’s dissatisfaction with their elders.
Despite the simple external story, the overall narrative structure of A Moment of Innocence contains abundant and diverse plot, but not in the traditional sense of a lot of characters and complicated twists. Such traditional narratives are also linear, reaching a single resolution, but in A Moment of Innocence the narrative strands proceed simultaneously towards different end points. This leaves the film open to unlimited different interpretations.
At the most fundamental level, what makes this multifaceted narrative structure possible is the elimination of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction generally follows a conventional narrative structure, whereas non-fiction is not bound to such a closed structure. Eliminating the boundary between them allows Makhmalbaf to widen the narrative structure.
Narration and the Subject
Classical cinema usually complies with the conventions of illusionism. This means that the producing subject or filmmaker is invisible, encouraging the audience to see the film as reality and accept it in a passive manner. In A Moment of Innocence, subjectivity is dealt with in a complex structure that combines both anti-illusionism and illusionism.
The linguistic category of the subject in cinematic discourse can be broken down into three sub-categories: on-screen narrating subjects, subjects of the narration, and the off-screen narrating subject or enunciator. In A Moment of Innocence, the key on-screen narrating subjects or storytellers are Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman. However, in the process of representing their relationship, they also become subjects of narration when they actually appear on film. In that sense, this film appears to be an anti-illusionist film that makes the narrating subject visible. But in fact it is not so simple. The film contents can be broadly divided into two. First, there are those scenes where the two narrating subjects also function as the subjects of narration, such as the scenes where they audition the young actors who will play them in their youth, coach them, and then film the reenacted incident. Second, there are the scenes where the incident itself is replayed on film. As viewed by the audience, the second set of scenes is not produced by Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman as the subjects of narration in the film. Here, there is confusion about the narrating subject. In fact, A Moment of Innocence has two types of narrating subject. One is the visible narrating subject and the other is the invisible narrating subject or enunciator of the whole film. In this way, this film mixes illusionism and anti-illusionist style. Some connections clearly exist between the scenes about the making of the film and the scenes from the film that is made, but there are also scenes from the film that is made that have no obvious connection to scenes of the making of the film. These scenes with no obvious connection are illusionist in style, and the last scene of the film is a fine example. Here, the incident in which Makhmalbaf attacked the policeman is replayed. However, the scene has a different ending from the actual past incident. The young Makhmalbaf and the policeman do not injure each other, but take out the bread and the flower. Who staged this last scene? It is Makhmalbaf, who has also functioned as both of the subject of narration and the narrating subject on screen. The last scene brings out the theme that Makhmalbaf ultimately wants to talk about; his realization that it is wrong to achieve justice with violence as he did in his younger years and that the world will be saved only by love.
As a result, the whole story before the last scene requires reinterpretation. The whole procedure in which Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman meet the actors, tell them of their experiences and then coach them no longer appears as part of the process of making a film, but rather as something staged by Makhmalbaf, the enunciator of the whole film, to convey the theme of reconciliation in the last scene. We must reexamine what happens. The ex-policeman tells the young man who plays his younger self about his experiences as a policeman and at the same time about the girl he loved back then. He also explains that he bought a pot plant as a gift for her. Meanwhile, how does the conversation go between the young man playing the young Makhmalbaf, and the girl playing the cousin who helped him to attack the policeman? Before the shooting, they talk about a life in the service of humanity. Then, in the middle of filming the assault, the young man expresses his disapproval of stabbing the policeman. This scene reveals Makhmalbaf himself holding the camera and filming the scene. But the scene that results from all this is not shown until the end of the film. Therefore, the audience misunderstands. They believe that the two young men who are supposed to draw a gun and a knife pull out the bread and the flower instead against the will of the two visible narrating subjects, Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman. In fact, this last scene is under the direction of Makhmalbaf, the enunciator, and therefore so are all the other scenes showing the process of filmmaking that have come before it. This is to say that there are three Makhmalbafs. The first is the visible narrating subject who plays the role of the director of a film within the film. The second is the subject of the narration, represented as himself on screen in the film within a film. The third is the invisible narrating agent or enunciator, the director of A Moment of Innocence, who in fact controls the two other subjects. Hence this film is both self-conscious and simultaneously self-reflexive, leading the audience into confusion about the subject of and in the narrative.
If this interpretation is accepted, then it may be a problem to understand how Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman shift from being subjects of narration to narrating subjects. This occurs because Makhmalbaf, as the enunciator, stages the whole process of the film. This is again related to the question of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. Even though this film ultimately belongs to the realm of fiction, it is based on non-fiction. In particular, the stories conveyed to the young men by Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman as subjects of the narration are based on the actual facts. Moreover, dialog is one of the methods of cinematic narration. In other words, their dialog is not only part of a filmmaking process but also a method of omitting reenactment by way of oral narration. For instance, their dialog narrates various events that foreshadow the last scene, including the details of who the girl who helped Makhmalbaf during the incident was and how and where she lives now. It is by delivering this information via dialog rather than reenactment like the last scene that Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman, as subjects of the narration, are also endowed as narrating subjects. Furthermore, as the subject of narration, Makhmalbaf appears holding a camera in the film when he records the reenactment of the young Makhmalbaf attacking the policeman. (Of course, behind this is Makhmalbaf the invisible narrator or enunciator. Who is the cameraman who films Makhmalbaf filming, and who is directing this scene? Ultimately, this is also Makhmalbaf, the director himself.) The shots he filmed are not used in the final cut of the last scene, but he embeds this event in the film because, as the enunciator, Makhmalbaf considers himself a part of the filmmaking process. The decision whether to embed the scene shot by Makhmalbaf as narrating subject into the film lies with Makhmalbaf, the enunciator, and by doing so the function of Makhmalbaf as subject of narration in the film is extended to narrating subject. By breaking the conventions of subjectivity in narrative in ways such as these, Makhmalbaf again attempts to extend the narrative structure.
Methods of Eliminating the Boundary between Fiction and Non-Fiction
Makhmalbaf’s methods of eliminating the boundary between fiction and non-fiction are fresh. In the past, this was usually done by juxtaposing non-fiction and fiction, as in the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Such works did not question the essence of the forms involved, but rather conventions of genre categorization. Even for Godard, documentary was documentary and fiction was fiction. His insertion of non-fiction into fiction attempted to disrupt existing narrative conventions, and therefore relied upon not confusing the audience about which elements were fiction and which were not. Probably, they only felt unfamiliar with coexistence of two genres in one film, and were left to focus on what Godard was trying to express through this juxtaposition.
In contrast, Makhmalbaf questions the essence of non-fiction and fiction. Usually, they are distinguished by asking what is imagination and what is real. But Makhmalbaf fundamentally deconstructs this distinction and then reconstructs fiction and non-fiction as mutually informed and inter-penetrated. In A Moment of Innocence, they get intricately entangled. But is it precisely this that enables him to tell innumerable stories. Economically speaking, he creates a most efficient narrative structure.
As mentioned before, A Moment of Innocence takes the process of making a film as its basic framework. This seems like a documentary, but is in fact closer to fiction. Although the ex-policeman who plays Nasoria and Makhmalbaf choose the actors, coach them, and explain to them about the past, the problem is that the ex-policeman is not actually Nasoria and therefore what he explains to the younger actor is necessarily directed by Makhmalbaf. This further raises the question of whether everything the ex-policeman says to the young man is fictitious. What the young man playing the young Nasoria basically needs to know about is how it was to live under the regime of the Shah in the seventies. By this criterion, the stories the ex-policeman tells the young man are mostly true, and the story that he loved a girl is also true. We need to reconsider. After Makhmalbaf tells the ex-policeman about the assault and his intention to make a film about it, he asks him to tell the young man about his own experience as a policeman. In the ex-policeman’s perspective, two non-fictions and one fiction are brought together; the non-fictions of the ‘process of filmmaking’ and the ‘confession of the ex-policeman’ are fused with the fiction that the invisible Makhmalbaf is directing.
Now, let us turn to the young man playing the young Makhmalbaf and the girl playing his cousin. When the young man weeps because he has to stab the policeman even if it is only acting, this is fictitious and he is following Makhmalbaf’s direction. Yet, even here fiction and non-fiction intertwine, for the girl is both his real cousin and his real beloved. The reality that he represents is that of ordinary Iranian youth today. In this way, Makhmalbaf has his actors play their roles and simultaneously express themselves as they are.
Everyone appearing in A Moment of Innocence has a double identity. In most fiction films, actors strive to lose themselves in their role, whereas in this film they express both their roles and themselves. However, the roles of Makhmalbaf and his assistant Zinal are different. While the ex-policeman and the young actors play their characters and simultaneously express themselves, Makhmalbaf and Zinal express themselves as they play the roles of themselves. This is different from straightforward acting of a role. They appear in the film called A Moment of Innocence as a director and assistant filming the reenactment of the assault. Makhmalbaf hints at the distinction between the Makhmalbaf in the film and the Makhmalbaf outside by showing the scenes from the film within the film, presumably directed by Makhmalbaf, and showing Makhmalbaf filming with the camera. This latter appearance of Makhmalbaf filming is both documentary and fiction, and may be confusing for audiences accustomed to clear lines between fiction and non-fiction. However, this efficient deconstruction of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction extends the cinematic mode of expression.
Narrative and Time
Classical cinema usually maintains consistency in terms of story time; whether presented chronologically or not, conventional devices prevent audience confusion. In non-chronological narratives, displaced time is rendered through recollections (analepses, known in the cinema as flashbacks) and prescience (prolepses, known in the cinema as flashforwards). In all cases, a consistent return to the present tense minimizes any confusion.
However, in A Moment of Innocence, non-chronological narrative takes a completely different form from the classical mode. This manifests itself in terms of frequency and point of view. For example, in sequence 4, as the ex-policeman explains to the young actor how to stand guard on the street and how to deal with someone asking the time or for directions, he adds on the story of how he once fell in love with a girl who asked him the time. At that very moment, a girl passing by actually asks the time of the actor wearing the police uniform. The policeman tells him that was exactly how it was before. Meanwhile, in sequence 6, after the young man playing the young Makhmalbaf talks with his cousin playing Makhmalbaf’s cousin about their ideals and the film, she asks the time of the young policeman on the street. In this way it is made clear that the moment when that the girl asks the time to the policeman in sequence 4 and 6 is one synchronous moment. In terms of frequency, this synchronous moment is repeated, but the point of view in each sequence is clearly different. The synchronous moment when the girl asks the time occurs in the middle of the conversation between the ex-policeman and the young man in sequence 4, but in sequence 6 it occurs during the meeting between the young Makhmalbaf and his cousin. The repetition itself is not completely different from classical narrative convention. However, in classical narration such repetition is usually accomplished through flashback, preventing audience confusion. For example, Kurosawa’s Rashomon tells one story from various perspectives, as a rape and murder case that happened in the woods unfolds in the form of testimonies by seven witnesses. As a result, the film maintains consistency of story-time and prevents confusion because the testimonies are presented retroactively as flashbacks. In contrast, the synchronous moment in sequences 4 and 6 of A Moment of Innocence is not a recollection scene.
In sequence 6, after the girl asks the young man the time and passes by, the conversation between the ex-policeman and the young man continues. Why does the camera not follow her, but instead repeats the conversation? Maybe Makhmalbaf’s intention in sequence 6 is remind the audience that the policeman emphasizes that, surprisingly, the same thing once happened to him. However, because of the sudden disruption of the synchronous moment, the story, which has proceeded according to chronological order so far, becomes confusing. Moreover, because the stories of the different subjects of narration meet at the same point here, the audience is even more perplexed. By dispersing the temporal order in this way, Makhmalbaf obtains a kind of alienation effect.
To take another example, in sequence 8, the young man playing the policeman tags along behind a funeral procession, loses the pot plant, and then recovers it. Now, let us examine the scene where Makhmalbaf, as a subject of narration, films the two young people who are going to attack the policeman. They have bought a piece of unleavened bread to hide the knife. As the girl approaches the location to ask the time as planned, Makhmalbaf films her with a hand-held camera. But when she arrives, the young policeman is not there. At this moment, the girl turns and addresses Makhmalbaf, who has been filming her. Together with her cousin, they leave the location in search of the young policeman. As they leave, the policeman returns to the spot, and this moment is the same as the scene where he was searching for the plant in sequence 8. Through the repetition of these two scenes, the audience is reminded again of the complexity of everyday life.
As in the previous example, this repetition does not occur as a flashback. However, there is a difference between the two repetitions of synchronous moments. In case of the repetition in sequences 4 and 6, the last segment of sequence 4 right after the moment is repeated in sequence 6. In contrast, the moment in sequences 8 and 11 is the last scene in sequence 11, and the last segment of sequence 8 is not repeated in sequence 11. Because sequence 12 succeeds the sequences 8 and 11 in the chronological order of the story time, one has the sense of an ellipsis. Through repeating the two scenes, Makhmalbaf communicates the irreversibility of time in a paradoxical manner by overturning chronological order in his narrative presentation of time. Returning to sequence 8 with this in mind, we see that the young man playing the policeman sees the funeral procession, puts the little pot plant down in a spot of sunlight, and then helps to carry the coffin. After a while, he comes back for the plant and realizes it is gone. “Have you seen a ray of sunlight here?” he asks an old man who passes by. “The sun doesn’t stay in the same place,” the old man answers. Death and the ray of sunlight that does not stay in the same place: time can never be reversed. It is not clear if the young man grasps this philosophical idea, but Makhmalbaf expresses the irreversibility of time through the reversible temporal structure of cinematic narrative.
As cinema has gone through numerous transformations since its birth and classical cinema has come to form the mainstream, the search for humanity in film has gradually been pushed aside by exciting plots and spectacle. Captured by the fictitiousness of film far removed from reality, the audience has come to forget about humanity. Makhmalbaf’s elimination of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction through his multifaceted narrative structure allows us to think about human beings and suggests that his aim is to direct our attention towards and evoke our affection for human beings. In addition, by using a method that reveals the actors’ real selves along with their roles in the film, he lets the audience grasp cinematic reality and real reality simultaneously. The characters in A Moment of Innocence are neither heroic nor tragic, yet Makhmalbaf focuses his camera upon these ordinary people, observing them, talking with them, and inviting their stories into the film. His film is formed through this process, and therefore it comes much closer to ordinary people. A Moment of Innocence is an opportunity to retrieve the cinema for humanity, from whom it has drifted away since its birth. Instead of yearning for exceptional stories about extraordinary people in unusual settings, the audiences witnesses film participating in and responding to their stories and their lives. Makhmalbaf’s formal innovations in A Moment of Innocence have value more as a means of bringing people and cinema together than as a political vehicle or aesthetic experiment. It is hard to think of a better expression of closeness between humanity and the cinema, and this is where the true value of this work lies.