Sometimes, great films go unnoticed and unsung in a movie festival. The recent Venice International Film Festival was no exception. The President by Iran’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf was one.
Hounded out of his own country by an autocratic regime and exiled in London,
came to Venice with a parable on violence, The President, which clearly indicates that it was inspired by the Arab Spring, is a mighty powerful and poignant look at the brutality and bestiality of dictators.
One of the first scenes in The President, shot in Georgia, shows the ruler in military uniform showing his little grandson (also in uniform) what power is all about. Sitting on a high balcony in his palace overlooking his city, the President orders the city lights to be switched off. The moment he barks his diktat into the telephone, the whole place, except the palace, plunges into darkness. A few moments later, when he commands that the lights be switched on, they begin to glow.
This little game, much to the awe and amazement of the lad, goes on for a while, till the lights do not come on at all. What follows is the sound of gunfire, and, well, a coup breaks out. The President and his grandson have to flee and hide from a murderous mob baying for their blood. They disguise themselves first as shepherds and later as musicians and keep hopping from place to place, and there is no single man or woman who has a kind word for the dictator. So bloody cruel was his reign.
In many ways, The President is gripping – but some may find it a little too late in the day. For there have innumerable movies on the Arab Spring. Also, The President is not in the same league as, say, Makhmalbaf's Kandahar – a haunting story set in Taliban’s Afghanistan about a sister who goes there in search of a missing and suicidal sibling.
It was during a trip to Afghanistan eight years ago that the Makhmalbaf thought of The President. Looking at the rubble that was Kabul from atop the destroyed Darul Aman Palace, he wondered about a king and his tendency to show off his total power. Could there be anybody better than a child to whom he could display his unchallenged might?
Also watch:The President trailer
Makhmalbaf told the media that dictators did not easily give up their positions, and those seeking a democratic path often had to resort to violence to get the man out. So the road to democracy was strewn with bodies and blood. Invariably, the end of a dictatorship did not signal the end of hostility.
This was witnessed during the French Revolution. We see this in The President with the crowds going berserk. And eventually when they get what they have been looking for, there are vastly differing opinions on what the punishment ought to be.
So, in a way revolutions cause further upheaval. “There can be no end to this cycle unless mankind is able to build a new and better culture to deal with such situations. I hope my work is a small step and hope for creating this new culture”, Makhmalbaf adds.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the recent Venice International Film Festival)