2015年3月29日 星期日

The President (總统大人着草了)

My second film at the HKIFF is not the kind of film that one finds easily in Hong Kong: it's not a tear jerking tragedy, nor a gag comedy. It is neither an action movie nor a romance. It's not a Chinese movie. Nor is it a Hollywood movie. It's a movie by a film director who is Iranian but who could not make that movie in his country about a subject which not very many film deals with. It's a very personal film about something which touches the director very deeply. He spent five and a half year in an Iranian prison for throwing a bomb at a government leader. He tried to fight for political reform and did not hesitate to use physical violence. Since then, he has had some second thoughts about its use for a noble political cause.The film is called "The President" (2014) and the director is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a self-taught Iranian film maker living with his family in Paris. 

As the film opens, we see a 5-year old kid in military uniform sitting on the lap of an old man also in military uniform. He was looking out from his office on to the city below his feet. It was night time. There were city lights everywhere. The child was asking for an icecream. The old man said he could not have it because it's not good for him. But the child insisted. To appease the child, he asked him if he would like to see the lights go out. The child nodded. The old man made a telephone call. The lights were off. Then he asked the child if he would like to try. The child nodded vigorously. He passed the telephone to the child. The child then gave a few orders and the lights were on and off. But when the child tried a third time for the lights to be turned on again, the city remained dark. Then the sound of a few bomb explosion could be heard.
When the film ends, we see the child in the hands of another old man who was thrown into jail because he sang songs which was not to the liking of the old man in the opening scene. The child was dancing to the sound of the guitar played by the old man, on a beach, in front of the open sea where waves were coming in and going out, regularly, peacefully. A little earlier, we see the heads of two men on a small boulder on that beach. The head on the left belongs to the old man in the opening scene, now dressed in rags, blood on his forehead. The other head belongs to a younger man. Behind them was a huge crowd, some armed with sticks and and others with guns. Amongst them and standing in front of them were some dozen soldiers in camouflage uniform, guns in their hands, all aiming in the direction of the old man and the young man lying prostrate on the sand with their head on the boulder. To the left of the old man, we see a peasant with his arms raised, an axe suspended in mid-air. Just before that, the young man, who was a political prisoner just released from prison after the Revolution had succeeded in overthrowing the government, had pleaded to the crowd to spare the life of the old man because according to him, violence can only have one consequence: it will only breed  a sense of grievance which will lead to more violence and the circle of violence and revenge will continue ad infinitum, despite the success of the Revolution for democracy. He asked the crowd, whether that is what democracy is supposed to bring: an endless cycle of violence in which the violence of the dictatorship would be replaced by further violence which democracy was supposed to bring to an end. The crowd was silent. He said that if the crowd insisted on seeing the old man dead, they must first kill him. We see earlier how with the different fleeting moods of the crowd at different moments, various proposals had been made by them on how to deal with the old fugitive and the child, one after the other in close succession: instant death for the old man and the child by the soldiers acting as the firing squad, death of the two by hanging and death of the old man by torture or giving up the old man to the revolutionary government in return for the 1 million dollars bounty for him and sharing the proceeds amongst themselves. Just before the child was hung, the same young man asked the mob what crime the child had committed and the crowd agreed that he should be released. Then suddenly somebody suggested that the child should dance for democracy. When the film ends, the child was dancing before the sea. How would the crowd eventually decide to deal with the old man? The film is silent.

In the meantime, we see the old man (Misha Gomiashvili), the President in the title of the film who likes to address himself as "His Majesty", going to the airport first amongst his supporters and then amidst protests by the crowds in the street, to see his aunt and two daughters off to a foreign country. At the last minute, the child (Dachi Orvelashvili), his grandson by the son whom some terrorists killed earlier, refuses to go. The situation got more and more out of hand: his body guard was killed whilst protecting him from the rebels, begging him to look after his newborn child before he died. Dachi asked him what "die" means. He replied that it when a person ceased to breathe, to move and to talk but he asked Dachi not to look at the his dead body guard. The child closed his eyes. The President decided that he too would flee the country and ordered the chauffeur to drive to the airport. When he was there, he found the head of the military band who saw his family off a little earlier told him that he could not fly the helicopter even by himself because the latter said so, he having joined the rebels (now revolutionaries) and he ordered the chauffeur to drive away in his bullet proof car until it ran out of petrol. In the meantime, he heard on the radio that the revolutionary forces had taken over control of the radio station and was urging the people to report on his whereabouts, offering first 20,000 dollars and then 30,000 until it reached 1 million. He hijacked first a car, then a motor cycle at gunpoint but as his escape continued, he was reduced to walking on foot, disguising himself first in the the clothes of a shepherd, herding sheep whilst helicopters hovered above and soldiers below were looking for him, then those of a peasant, pretending to be a scarecrow, then after grabbing a guitar at gunpoint continued his flight with Dachi as a traveling musician, sleeping amongst barn animals inside a carton box, telling bedtime story to his grandson, hitching rides from passing lorries, hoping to reach the border so that he might seek political asylum to preserve his physical life, not having to worry about other things because he had huge amounts of cash in various Swiss bank accounts. He passed through various military checkpoints and witnessed how the soldiers abused their power: taking chicken and food from peasants, looting them at will, raping their women, frequenting brothels without paying, because they claimed they hadn't been properly paid. On the way, he met one of the prostitutes he frequented when she was 15 and begged her to take care of his grandson so that he himself might make good his escape but she refused. He also heard what some of the political prisoners sharing the truck ride whom he previously caused to be incarcerated but who had now been released by the revolutionary forces thought about him and how they would like to deal with him. One of such fellow travelers was the young man who laid down his life to save his because he believed that the only way of breaking the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence was forgiveness.

A critic compared the fate of the President to that of Shakespeare's King Lear but I don't think the analogy is at all appropriate. Lear merely portrays the fate of an old man in possession of great power who loves his daughters too much and therefore unwisely. The President is simply a dictator who had lost power desperate to preserve his own life and the life of his beloved grandson. It is through the depiction of his experience as a man who had lost all his powers overnight that Makhmalbaf tries to pose the problem of the corruption that power can bring: not only at the highest level but also at the level of the soldiers in possession of guns and "authority" and the political prisoners in apparent possession of "moral authority" and even at the level the ordinary peasants who thought they had been unfairly treated or wronged in the past and who operated at the most primitive level of "tit for tat' or "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". Lord Acton is right when he says, "Power corrupts. Absolute Power corrupts absolutely".

Through the mouth of the young idealist recently liberated political prisoner, Makhmalaf may be proposing a possible solution to the end of political violence in all forms. Who proposed that the child should dance for democracy? It was an anonymous voice. Also anonymous is the country in which the President was president. Perhaps it's through such anonymity that the story that Makhmalbaf may take on a significance beyond the borders of his native Iran and to such extent becomes a universal allegory of all forms of dictatorships, be it a South American type of military dictatorship, the enlightened military dictatorship of the former Shah of Iran or the dictatorship of a particular social class of the "People" or Communist dictatorship or the dictatorship of a so-called "democratic republic". A particularly moving sequence in the film is the episode where we are shown how one of the released political prisoners travelling with the President sustained himself through all the years of tortures by holding fast to what he firmly believed to be the exemplary love story in his village but who upon reaching  the doorsteps of his "home", hobbling, then crawling, found, upon calling his dream lover by throwing a small pebble at the small window of her door, that she now had a 6 month old baby. He instantly killed himself with a pike he found at the doorsteps. How would the President feel when he sees such a probably unintended consequence of his thoughtless but indomitable will to retain power?

One of the things I like about Makhmalbaf's film is the way he refrains from judging his characters. He portrays a certain human side to the President too: he was prepared upon request to wipe the butt of his grandson and told him bed time stories and submitted to his fate without uttering a single word in his own defence, whether in the truck with the political prisoners as an apparent "by-stander", before the prostitute or even before his daughters (Nuki Koshkelishvili and Elene Bezarashvili)  whilst they were in the car travelling to the airport before things turned ugly for him and the way he encouraged his grandson to move on in their escape by treating it as a "game".  It's a clever and most effective ploy that Makhmalbaf uses the innocent questions of the angelic 5 year old Daichi about various things he saw but could not understand to probe some of the most fundamental issues the director wishes to explore. I also like the way he uses music to highlight the general misery of the life of the ordinary people and to serve as ironic comment: the soldier carrying out body searches of its citizens without the slightest regard for their human rights whilst singing a children's song and in the case of the gypsy frequenting the brothel, even as a means to provide a bit of humor, fun and excitement. It is not for no reason that the film won the Gold Hugo for the best feature film at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival and the Audience Award of the 2014 Tokyo FILMeX.The film has also been nominated for an award at the Venice Film Festival.