In Jerusalem these days, reality seems to be breaking through reality. It’s the cultural equivalent of a sonic boom: “I love you!” A hailstorm of applause showers the slight man in black, who has just bounded down the theater aisle and leapt onto the stage like a game show host or a mega-church preacher. “Let’s have a hope for peace between Israel and Iran!” The clapping grows still louder. “I have a dream one day I invite all of you to Iran!” The whistling lifts to tea-kettle pitch as the crowd rises to its feet and he bows, palms pressed together, Namaste-style, then prostrates himself—possibly he’s joking, but maybe he’s not—and promptly springs back up to the microphone, declaring in his lilting, Persian-tinted English, “I don’t know what to say after seeing your reaction, but I love you, I love you, I love you!”
The great Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has come to Jerusalem. The former Islamic militant and death-row prisoner under the shah, current secular activist for a democratic Iran, and political exile from his homeland has come to Jewish West Jerusalem—that is, Israel. A guest of the thirtieth Jerusalem International Film Festival, which in July screened his newest movie, The Gardener, as well as a selection of his earlier work, Makhmalbaf was also in town to accept a special award from the festival, “In the Spirit of Freedom.” He may be the first director from the Islamic Republic to have visited the Jewish state; he is certainly the first to have made a movie in this country. (Ostensibly a documentary meditation on Bahaism, The Gardener was shot in Israel with a few digital cameras by Makhmalbaf and his son Maysam.) There is no doubt that he is the first to stand before a large crowd of Israelis and grin beatifically as he professes his love for each and every one of them.
It’s hard to believe that he has come, but the unreality of his arrival seems somehow fitting, since most of Makhmalbaf’s movies are playfully serious (or seriously playful) meditations on actuality and illusion. Earlier in the day, he said that in being here, he was happy to have “land[ed] on [the] moon,” and from my seat in a packed auditorium at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, surrounded by a mostly Jewish audience, it feels as though we’ve all just taken a collective leap onto a mysterious but alluring extraterrestrial landscape—a tranquil, reflected image of the tense Middle East we actually live in. Lest we forget: the day after the festival ended, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation, looking like the Grim Reaper in a businessman’s blue tie and warning that he “won’t wait until it’s too late” to take military action against Iran because “all the problems that we have…will be dwarfed by this messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime that would have atomic bombs.”
For all the grandstanding of Makhmalbaf’s Jerusalem charm offensive, he does have a way of cutting through the notorious “difficulty” of Middle Eastern diplomacy, to say nothing of the hatemongering and saber-rattling that attend it. “I love you!” he insists in the simplest, most unwavering terms. “I love you!”
Or is such simplicity itself—in this pathologically gnarled context—the most slyly sophisticated sort of complication? Like his movies, his presence here sends one wandering down a fascinating, disarming hall of mirrors.
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These are strange days in Jerusalem. On the eve of the month of Ramadan and at the height of summer vacation—as, nearby, Egypt seethes and Syria smolders—the city is both more bustling and more bewildering than ever, and Makhmalbaf’s unlikely appearance only underscores the confusing nature of this Middle Eastern cultural moment.