The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia / France/ UK / Germany 2014). Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf / Screenplay by Mohsen Makhmalbaf & Marziyeh Meshkiny / Cinematography by Konstantine-Mindia Esadze / Edited by Hana Makhmalbaf & Marziyeh Meshkiny / Art direction by Mamuka Esadze / Set decoration by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Starring Mikheil Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili.
The President is a modern fairytale and parable of great beauty and savagery in which the horrors are real and not rigged to give way to any kind of fulfilment: we are left to guess at what the future might hold but are not abandoned without hope. A lone voice preaches love and reason; how might that be augmented to bring about a great shout?
At the 24th International Chichester Film Festival yesterday I saw Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s new film The President (2014) straight after Andrzej Wajda’s towering account of the Solidarity victory in the Gdansk shipyards, Man of Iron (1981). I was struck immediately by the affinity of both films, of how an ardent revolution decays and the very principles which drove it become corrupted by those who still purport to believe in it; how revolution gives way to dictatorship, generating in turn a counterrevolutionary rediscovery of freedom from fear through social justice and, above all, a universal assertion of love over hatred—and how quickly that, too, may decay, in a terrible cycle that only love and fellowship will dissolve. (Such correspondence of seemingly very different stories is one of the great joys of ‘getting it’: the revelation of universal truths in different contexts which may, through art, transform our view of the world.)
Eagerly awaited, The President is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s first major feature since Kandahar (2001), seeming to return, in its enchanting aspects, to the rich world of Gabbeh (1996). As harrowing as it is beautiful, The President is an allegory pointedly for our mangled times, with a simple, clear message that cries out against the great wave of hatred, revenge and cruelty which threatens to engulf the world. The film begins as a fairy tale might, in the dreamlike realm of an undisclosed country, in a street of light and in a glittering palace with an ageing President in all his finery, his grandson a little Royal Highness, man and boy surveying the opulent and mysterious modern city and exercising gleefully their unlimited and unchecked power by switching off at will—and switching back on—all the lights of the city. As the lights go out, the cars in the streets honk in distress, sinking back to a quiet hum as the lights go back on. The little Royal Highness refers to his granddad as Your Majesty and loves above all his little friend Maria, daughter of the dancing master who, charmingly, teaches the children to dance the tango as grown-ups might. The lighting and interiors of the place are enchanting, as is this budding, touching love. For the boy, all of this is a game, and a simple story too, told once upon a time.
But not for long. The dream falls apart in the twinkling of an eye as the commanded lights do not go back on and gunfire and explosions erupt throughout the city. In a very short time, the entire presidential household is on the run, and we see the vituperation, blame and accusations that have poisoned it for years. As the family arrives at the airport to flee from the revolution, the President stays on and with him his grandson, who loves only of his Majesty. The President’s progress from the airport develops into a tense flight as the presidential limousine attempts to get through wave after wave of rioters and a now disloyal army. This thrilling getaway sequence becomes very real when the President’s bodyguard is shot in the heart and dies next to his master, the little Royal Highness paralysed with fear and yet immensely curious. Now on the run, the President and the boy dress as street musicians, the boy eventually transformed by girl’s clothes into a sweet dancer. On their travels through this land of tears, they see terrible things, and hear terrible tales about the atrocities perpetrated by the President and his regime—and now, equally, by the very soldiery and population who have deposed him. The President becomes a ragged old man and the little Highness just a poor boy as, in a bedtime story (once upon a time) in a stable, the fabulous and the real worlds coincide, the boy protected by seeing all around him as a game he doesn’t like.
The depiction of the casual violence of war in all its random horror is extreme. The President too hears of things so personal to him that he can hardly keep up his disguise, and learns of his own gross mismanagement of intimate affairs. Like any prince or potentate who goes about in disguise, he, the secret listener, will never hear good of himself. The President begins to soften, becomes gradually as undistinguished and undistinguishable as his destitute citizens. We learn of those who seek asylum beyond this land, of so-called terrorists who fought injustice, of people dislocated and ruined by war and imprisonment.
The President is powerless to do anything about any of this, and it is up to the people to bring about change to a better life. In a tense denouement, we see the forces of hatred and revenge ranged against an old man and a little boy, with a lone voice crying out for our human need to transcend our own capacity for destruction through magnanimity and forgiveness: for a return to the virtues that make us human and the principles upon which, once, we sought to base just government. It is we the people who allowed the President to attain his monstrous office and it is we, the soldiery of the state, that now inflict upon our own people the horrors that we accuse the President of perpetrating. The turning of the tables from justice and love to unalloyed despair and hatred could not be better put: a simpler statement of this great truth would seem hard to imagine. Will the mob succumb to the old lie, or somehow find a way to arrest the bloodlust? To reinstate all of the virtues of polity and government that have been lost so lamentably? For the President, truly, all his people are now his enemies, and he can no longer prevail. But can the boy? Can the boy get beyond this terrible game that he does not like one little bit?
The film is a journey through the wilderness to to the edge of a great sea, beyond which lies the great unknowability of the future of man. An exile from his own land, Makhmalbaf shot the film in Georgia, and, as the fairy-tale place of the President and the great city and its fabulous lightshow recede, we are plunged into a wasteland of bleak housing tracts and half-built houses littering the desert, peopled by the destitute; a bizarre makeshift minerals site in which child slaves toil in amassing stones for crushing; of dry marshes and parched pastures—and everywhere roving bands of predatory, murderous soldiery. Fairy tale has given way to an all too real dystopia, with no need for any sensational effects. One sorely wronged woman cries out that nobody did anything. Nobody helped. The President too looks on helplessly as he sees the ruinous fruits of his labours.
Mikheil Gomiashvili as man and President and Dachi Orvelashvili as boy and little Royal Highness are a moving combination and through them, as both victims and observers, the film weaves together effortlessly a dreamlike state and a hideous reality. The lack of a recognisable naturalism in the boy is an aspect of this duality, his reactions not what we might expect (for instance, nothing like those of a village boy who is scared out of his wits by the President). The boy dances blankly as the world threatens to fall apart, and we wonder whether his immensely and touchingly naïve curiosity will inure him to the horrors he has witnessed, and when, for him, the game will become reality. He has seen his granddad as the lowest of the low, all power gone, as abject as the people he once oppressed. What sense might he make of the various positions that are being taken at the end? What future world might he contribute to? In this parable of choice, the great sea erases men’s castles and makes all smooth again. At the shore, we stand between the known and the unknown, between reason and the vast oblivion of destructive madness, but with a curious sense of a great hope as the world holds its breath, as the magical and the real continue to split and merge.