Taken at face value, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener, which opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday, is lightweight stuff. It shows the Iranian filmmaker and his son Maysam visiting the Baha’i gardens in Haifa, where they learn about the Baha’i faith (which was founded in Iran in the early 19th century) and discuss the value of organized religion in modern society. They record testimonies from practitioners of Baha’i from around the world (who explain the religion’s doctrine of peace and tolerance) and capture some beautiful images of the gardens. It’s a mellow, contemplative film, despite being framed by an unresolved debate between father and son. For the sake of dramatic conflict, Mohsen explains at the start of The Gardener, Makhmalbaf pere will advance a positive view of Baha’i and of religion in general (even though he identifies as agnostic) while Makhmalbaf fils will take the opposite stance, arguing that organized religions inspire intolerance more anything else. Yet in keeping with the peaceful mood of the gardens, their debate remains respectful in nature.
The movie is only deceptively simple. It appears to be a documentary and an equal partnership between the two Makhmalbafs; yet at the end, Mohsen receives sole credit for screenplay and direction and only Maysam gets credit for cinematography and editing. This leads one to ask whether these men are communicating their own values or playing characters in a scripted drama. The final half hour feels like a work of fiction, as father and son become so committed to their positions in the mock debate that they start to spout them in earnest. Maysam, growing self-righteous, takes his camera to holy sites in Jerusalem, where he sees only sectarianism. Mohsen, on the other hand, stays behind at the gardens and experiences a spiritual epiphany.
It’s a common trait of modern Iranian cinema to blur the line between fiction and documentary. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (which features Mohsen) might be the most famous example in the west, but plenty of Iranian movies play this game, notably Mohsen’s A Moment of Innocence, his daughter Samira’s The Apple, and Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror and This Is Not a Film. The Gardener may be less explicit in its interrogation of cinematic reality, but it still raises worthwhile questions about the relationship between camera and subject—namely, is the camera ever separable from the cameraman’s bias? Mohsen and Maysam both record footage on their own digital cameras, and a third, unseen videographer records them. Is it possible to detect differences in perspective, even when all three cameras are shooting the same thing?
The Gardener is shaped not only by unanswered questions, but by unspoken information. The Makhmalbafs never divulge, for instance, that they left Iran in 2005 in response to the election of Islamic hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They also never mention that it’s currently illegal for Iranians to travel to Israel and that they face five-year prison sentences when and if they return to their native country. The movie does acknowledge the Iranian government’s suppression of the Baha’i faith. Maysam, in his speeches about religious intolerance, recounts the ways in which Baha’is have been persecuted under the Islamic Republic: barred from attending universities, expelled from jobs, and imprisoned by the hundreds. The Makhmalbafs refrain from likening their own situation as dissident artists in exile to that of Baha’is in Iran. The closest they get is when Mohsen proclaims solidarity with Baha’is near the end of the movie, appropriating the Baha’i message of tolerance to tacitly condemn the intolerance of the Iranian government.