“I Wondered if Metaphor and Allegory Weren’t a Way of Integrating Censorship and Accepting Oppression”: Mohammad Rasoulof on There Is No Evil
“Under conditions of terror most people will comply,” Hannah Arendt wrote from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, “but some will not.”
This simple, almost simplistic sentiment permeates There Is No Evil, the new film from dissident Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof. The original Farsi title, Sheytan vojud nadarad, translates more directly to The Devil Doesn’t Exist, a phrase that may sound hopeful until you unpack its dark implications. Rasoulof is among that rarified latter group that does not comply. He has continued to live and make films in Iran despite severe restrictions and regular threats of imprisonment. Rather than retreat into smaller projects or flee the country once and for all, he has made his most ambitious, and most bluntly political, film to date. It’s also, arguably, the most significant Iranian film to receive US distribution since Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation.
There Is No Evil unfolds as a collection of four cinematic novellas. Rasoulof’s moral tales, which range between 33 to 43 minutes, explore the same ethical dilemma from varied angles. We witness the slice-of-life meanderings of a jolly bureaucrat; the prison-break thriller of a soldier who abandons his post; the romantic drama of a soldier on leave for good behavior; and the family melodrama of a farmer estranged from society. None of the tales overlap, making There Is No Evil an anthology film with a furious purpose: to interrogate the consequences of political resistance, and acquiescence, under authoritarian rule.
The Iranian government has dogged Rasoulof for much of his career. He was arrested alongside Jafar Panahi in 2010 and handed a prison sentence for creating “propaganda against the system.” The two had just collaborated on Rasoulof’s The White Meadow, for which Panahi served as editor. Panahi’s 20-year ban on filmmaking was met with international uproar at the time, while Rasoulof’s comparable sentence appeared as a footnote, if at all. In 2017, following the success of A Man of Integrity at the Cannes Film Festival, Rasoulof had his passport confiscated, thus adding a ban on travel to his ban on filmmaking. His long-threatened prison sentence seemed imminent in 2020, after his eighth feature, There Is No Evil, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
And yet, somehow, Mohammad Rasoulof is still with us. The 49-year-old director now lives on Kish, a small island off the southern coast of Iran, to reduce his public exposure. He still receives vague threats of interrogation and arrest (see below for one such text message). He has bypassed his ban on filmmaking through elaborate trickery: He submitted fake scripts for four short films under false names for production approval to make There Is No Evil, and he posed as a crew member on set should any authorities arrive.
Rasoulof recently discussed his process on Zoom with the help of Massoumeh Lahidji, a longtime interpreter for the Cannes Film Festival. Over an hour, we discussed mandatory military service in Iran, why so many Iranian films take place in cars, and, of course, Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil.” Released stateside earlier this month, There Is No Evil is now screening in select theaters and available to rent at Kino Now.
Filmmaker: My family emigrated from Iran when I was five years old, and I’ve only been able to visit the country once, in large part due to the fear of mandatory military service. I’ve never before seen a film critical of conscription in Iran. To your knowledge, has there ever been another such film made?
Rasoulof: I think no. This is probably the first time conscription has been dealt with in a film. Maybe it’s been dealt with in a film that was celebrating it as something sacred, but it’s never been criticized for sure.
Filmmaker: It’s been a truly chaotic 15 months since the premiere of There Is No Evil, both for yourself personally and the world at large. Before we talk about the film, I wanted to ask: What have these 15 months been like for you?
Rasoulof: To be honest, the pandemic has not had much of an impact on my own life. I live in a very restricted sphere, as if I have already been prepared for lockdown unconsciously. So, I haven’t experienced it as something very difficult, but of course what’s much more painful is to see people dying around me in Iran and in other countries. I think that going back to the way we lived before is something we should think about, because we see now how vulnerable we are. We should prepare ourselves for another way of living.
Filmmaker: In interviews last year, you said you’d wake up and check your phone to see if there were any updates on your prison sentence. Is this still how you begin your day?
Rasoulof: Yes, I still do. I found out yesterday that I have a new case on me. That’s part of my life. Every day that can happen to me. That’s how it is. It’s not easy to deal with it, but I think we people can adjust to anything, so I’ve gotten used to this. Here is the last text.
[Rasoulof shows a text message that reads in Farsi: “Mr. Rasoulof your case # has been sent to the second criminal section of the Tehran government. In case you are required to attend a hearing you will be informed.”]
This is part of my routine. This new case has to do with a statement that I signed with 17 other directors about Iran’s international relations. So, this is maybe not connected to this film or film in general. The reason why I think it might be about that is because last week I was asked for an interrogation session in Tehran, so I guess it must be related to that.
Filmmaker: So, with There Is No Evil, I’d like to ask the obvious question first: How on earth did you make this film while being banned from making films in Iran?
Rasoulof: That’s an important question, because answering it can make the lives of other people difficult but I have to answer it. After spending four years in Iran, after my first trip back from Europe, when I was banned from traveling, I realized I wanted to start a new film. How can I manage this? I’m always trying to find solutions. I always come up with the same conclusion, which is to leave the city, to be out in the countryside. That’s the first condition. Then I realized I had to make the shooting period as short as possible, so I’m less exposed.
So, I came up with the idea of shooting short films. Then I decided to write a story that the censorship institutions would accept, of a group working on short films without me. So, everything was legal, and I was just the intruder who came from nowhere and mixed with this group. Officially, I was not there, I was just passing by. If the police came to see what these people are doing, what they would see on the documents was a short film, and I would just stand away from the action and be taken as part of the crew.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about the supermarket scene in act one. It’s one of the only scenes where a character is out in a busy, public place. How did you film this?
Rasoulof: Of course, there’s a whole procedure to be able to shoot in this kind of supermarket. I went in as a customer, as if I was doing my own grocery shopping. Of course you always have a monitor with a tent, so I went under the tent so I couldn’t be seen. I grew my beard for that scene, because I didn’t want to be recognized. I had glasses and my beard so nobody would recognize me. Then people told me it looked nice on me, so I kept my beard and haven’t shaved it yet.
It all sounds very adventurous and complicated, but at times it’s really quite simple: The government cannot control everything, unless they decide to monitor me 24 hours a day. They have no other way to control me, and I’ve learned how to escape from their vigilance. There are always ways to escape from censorship. Now, I’m having great fun doing this. It has not stopped me. [This is] an invitation to other directors and artists to find creative ways of expressing themselves.
Filmmaker: When people would come by on the set, did you have someone ready to pose as the director?
Filmmaker: I had read that in order to make the film, your producers requested permits for four separate shorts and didn’t include your name on the paperwork. Were the scripts submitted different from the four stories we see in There Is No Evil?
Rasoulof: The stories were totally different. Different titles, different content, but the locations had to make sense for the film. We still have these scripts, we read them and laugh. We can’t imagine how they could give permits to such stupid stories, such mediocre stories, but they don’t give a damn. All they want is us not to make any serious films. If we do silly films, they would even thank us for that and celebrate us.
Filmmaker: In 2019 you said “None of my films are political, they are social criticisms that have political repercussions.” Would you say this is the case for There Is No Evil, or did you set out to make a more overtly political film?
Rasoulof: No, my approach to politics has always been cultural. I deal with cultural issues, but these are aspects of culture that touch on the government and power. Because the regime is an oppressive dictatorship, they cannot accept any kind of criticism. That’s how they give this label of “political film” to my work, and then they are introduced this way all over the world. I think political films are a genre unto themselves, and my film is not one. I’m not talking about how a country should be ruled or what party should rule. Political issues cast a shadow on my work, but I do believe that my approach to politics is cultural, not political.
Filmmaker: Many of the most internationally well-known Iranian films take place, at least in part, in cars. I couldn’t help but think of Taste of Cherry, Ten or Taxi during the long stretches of driving in There Is No Evil. What do you think attracts you and other Iranian filmmakers to the car as a setting?
Rasoulof: It’s hard for me to reply about other directors, but as far as I’m concerned the reason why my stories take place in cars is because you can show a personal, intimate relationship, but with a social and public background. We live in a complex structure in which every gesture is controlled. So, maybe this is a reaction to this control and this surveillance that we’re always exposed to. Another complicated issue is with the hijab. Most directors like myself will try and justify the fact that the women are wearing the scarf when they are with people they know. We choose a car so there is a reason why they are wearing the scarf. So, it’s a combination of factors that makes us construct a public or social background in a private scene.
Filmmaker: I’ve always admired this as an ingenious way to allow directors to shoot in public. Do you use a car mount that’s visible to people who are walking by the car?
Rasoulof: Yes. It can be either visible or not. For instance, on Manuscripts Don’t Burn I worked with a small photo camera with a very small crew, and that film too takes place mainly in a car. The camera was so small that nobody would take notice. For There Is No Evil, it was different. It was very obvious that we were shooting, but if ever we would have had an issue, we always had the “director” go and introduce himself as the director while I would watch the scene from far away. In the worst case, I would have to say I was a consultant and I was just passing by. In this film, we didn’t have this concern of hiding the camera or being discreet during the shoot. The crew was working overtly, it was just the director who was not to be recognized.
Filmmaker: Many of the great Iranian films, including films of your own like The White Meadows, are allegorical in nature. Do you believe that Iranian filmmakers have relied on allegory as a way to circumnavigate censorship?
Rasoulof: I had a very special experience with using metaphors in my early films. I was using the resources of Persian literature to express myself through images. Once my confrontation with the government became so obvious that I was even sentenced to jail, I wondered if metaphor and allegory weren’t a way of integrating censorship and accepting oppression. From then on, I decided to be more explicit and use metaphors more for aesthetic value rather than the means of saying things without being too straightforward. I decided to take the responsibility of what I’m saying and be more straightforward.
Filmmaker: There Is No Evil begins as though it may be an allegorical work before it becomes bluntly political. Was this bit of misdirection by design?
Rasoulof: No, it was more simple than that. What I wanted to show was that people who are accomplices of dictatorships are not necessarily monsters that we’d imagine as bloody, violent people. They can be very normal people, and that’s what makes them more scary. They are absolutely banal, everyday people. They are not even aware of their level of responsibility in what they do. They think that if they don’t do it, someone else will do it. They know nothing about what’s going on before or after they push a button. All they do is push a button.
My point in the first film was to show the banality of violence. You follow this man in this very everyday, normal life of his, and you realize that he has no idea of the responsibility he has. This is a man who is submitted to all kinds of authority. He’s submitted to his wife, to his mother, and so this kind of person can easily submit to what a totalitarian system asks of him. It’s not necessarily a monster. It can be a very sweet man who would even help children save a kitten.
Filmmaker: I read that this first passage was inspired by seeing one of your own interrogators at a bank. To what extent do you have empathy for a character like the beaurocrat of act one?
Rasoulof: I wouldn’t say it’s empathy. I was on the street and suddenly realized that the person who had been so brutal and had such an important role in this violence against me was just like any man who was coming out of the bank. At first I was very angry. I wanted to aggress against him, either symbolically or to go and film him or yell at him. There was this very deep wound in me that was awakened. Then I realized that, “Well, there are people around me who don’t know what I’ve been through, and they cannot imagine the role this man had in this system. What are his beliefs?” I had no idea myself. Does he believe in what he does, or is he just executing because he wants to earn a living?
So I just observed him. He went shopping. All kinds of people were doing the same as him. I calmed down, and I realized that Hannah Arendht is really right about this “banality of evil.” I went home after a very long walk. I slept, and when I woke up I had this story. I realized that this man was not a monster. He doesn’t have the power to distinguish what’s right and what’s wrong.
Filmmaker: The second chapter hinges on a long discussion between six soldiers, each coming from a different viewpoint. What was the genesis for this chapter?
Rasoulof: The second story stemmed from when I came back to Iran and was arrested at the airport. The very first person who saw me, my first interrogator, asked me, “Why have you come back?” This was a kind of repetitive question that people asked me, as if I had to justify myself. Everybody seemed to have accepted that if this regime is not the right one, instead of trying to change it or improve it, you have to flee. I realized that the story I had to tell was that you are responsible for an act, even if you’re nothing but a bureaucrat. In this bureaucratic system, your duty is to execute what is asked of you. But when the system is oppressive, then maybe what is ethical is to resist and not to execute this act. So, you are faced with a dilemma. When we were auditioning these kids for the film, we had about 30 people. They thought they were auditioning for a short film. What I found really scary was that when they were asked “What would you do if you were in such a situation?,” almost all of them said, “Of course, we shouldn’t do it, but we would do it.”
Filmmaker: I loved in part two that the character who’s fleeing forces the law-abiding bureaucrats into a filing cabinet. That’s what bureaucrats deal with: sorting data. Was this a bit of intentional symbolism here?
Rasoulof: Yes. The first film that I made [The Twilight] gave me this knowledge of how things are in prison. I heard the story of a prisoner who had been able to flee. I was aware that it must be easier to run away for a soldier. A soldier doesn’t have the same system of control, but then I wondered at the very last step, how can he flee? About this last place where he’s controlled, it’s a place that I know well, because I had shot a film in a prison and have also been a prisoner myself. I’m very familiar with these locations. I realized that the only way for somebody to get rid of the guards is to lock them in this kind of cupboard. So, it was quite an organic way of finding a place that would be credible in this location, but as you say there’s also the metaphor of this system. They are locked in their own structure. I do this myself. This film was made inside the system of censorship. I didn’t break the system. I did it inside the system by perverting it.
Filmmaker: To what extent were the final two tales in There Is No Evil, the ones set in the countryside, drawn on stories you’ve heard over the years from family and friends?
Rasoulof: There is one idea in terms of content that helped me in terms of production, which is that once you resist the system, you’re taken to the margins. The translation of this marginalized life in terms of cinema is going to the countryside. So, once the system rejects you, or you say no to the system, you have no other way but to flee, and that means living in the margins. That may seem very painful and difficult, but in spite of this hardship, I think this decision of resistance against a totalitarian system has some beauty in it. I think that’s what the film really deals with—the beauty in spite of the hardship of resistance and saying “No.”
Filmmaker: Do you see yourself as living that experience now, living on an island far away from Tehran?
Rasoulof: Yes. That’s what I’ve been experiencing. I’ve found shelter in nature. This is the only place where—when you wake up every morning with bad news, when you think of your friends who are in prison and are suffering just because they aspired to freedom, when you realize the hardship that your people go through—you feel a bit relieved and can find the energy and resources to fight back. Many of the people who are in this kind of situation find no other refuge but in nature. That’s where they find energy.
Filmmaker: What is your relationship like with international acclaim? Is there a part of you that fears becoming a bigger target in Iran the more your films win awards outside of the country?
Rasoulof: No, I think the support I receive internationally helps me. It doesn’t add extra pressure on me. Of course, I am accused of making films just for festivals, to please foreigners. Many in the official media and even some of my colleagues describe my work in such words. I don’t really pay attention to that. What matters is to try and respect your own freedom and find the audiences who speak the same language as you. I don’t think that Iranians are the only audience. I can talk to people and relate to people all over the world, but I also have an interest in having my films seen in my own country. This belief of being a citizen of the world—of being part of a population of eight billion people on earth—is something that makes me feel good. I feel protected this way.
Filmmaker: In the 15 months since the film premiered at Berlin, have you been able to work on any other projects?
Rasoulof: Yes, I’m working hard. Luckily, I have a very active mind. I’m not too tired to go on working and writing. There are several projects, but if you allow me I won’t say anything about them now. That would make it harder for me to make them.