Dear Chicago Reader,
Regarding your article in the April 11 issue by Mr. Rosenbaum:
I have admired Mr. Rosenbaum's film critiques over the years and will continue to do so. He is articulate and creative in his opinions and I have learned a lot from his reviews. Therefore, I regret that my first letter to you is a complaint regarding a recent review. I was surprised to see Mr. Rosenbaum lower his standards to include "yellow journalism." I was very disappointed in his negative review of Mr. Makhmalbaf's films. He supported his negative reviews by using erroneous facts concerning Mr. Makhmalbaf's life.
Point one: Mr. Makhmalbaf does not have children from both marriages. All three of his children are from his first marriage. After the death of his wife, his sister-in-law cared for his children. Islamic law does not allow single men and women to cohabit--that is a basis for marriage--hence a second marriage. Let's not even mention the comment about children and the number of shoes!
Point two: As recently as January 1997, Film magazine, published in Iran, mentioned his support for his movie Boycott. Your article is totally off base and strays far from ethical journalism.
Point three: I am sure that Mr. Rosenbaum saw Gabbeh in the New York film festival if not at the Cannes film festival. If Makhmalbaf's cruelty feeds his artistic viewpoint, why is Gabbeh considered by some of the most respected critics in the West to be one of the most beautiful and mysterious films ever made by an Iranian filmmaker? I'm sure that Mr. Rosenbaum saw Time magazine's "Ten Best Films of the Year" list.
Obviously, we are all affected by our ethnic backgrounds and social environment, but I had assumed that all films were reviewed on the basis of their worth and not with such a biased viewpoint.
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
Apart from my unfavorable treatment of Fleeing From Evil to God, which I incidentally praise for its sincerity, I don't consider my treatment of Makhmalbaf negative. My main purpose in writing about his films was to call attention to their strength, beauty, and importance, and just because I've encountered certain difficulties with some of them--difficulties I compared to my problems with Dostoyevsky--doesn't mean that I don't value them highly. (Personally, I wouldn't have titled my piece "Tortured Genius," a pun I don't find amusing, but the choice wasn't mine.)
I've seen Gabbeh at least three times--if memory serves, twice at Cannes and once at Toronto--and as one of the five members of the New York film festival's selection committee, was passionate in my support of showing it. I also keenly regretted its absence from the retrospective, and I certainly don't need Time magazine to teach me about its artistic worth.
I deeply regret the factual errors in my article, all of which came from misconstruing information that came to me from reliable sources. I should have called Makhmalbaf a former "fundamentalist and guerrilla" instead of a former "fundamentalist and terrorist." (I wasn't thinking about the power of a term like "terrorist" to mystify, and I should have.) The personal details about Makhmalbaf's family that I included were ones that I found both touching and potentially helpful in explicating his work, and they didn't strike me as being incompatible with the personal details included in Stardust-Stricken, an Iranian documentary about Makhmalbaf included in the retrospective, which neither letter writer mentions. (Do they regard footage of Makhmalbaf weeping at his first wife's funeral "yellow journalism" or appropriate? Some pointers on cross-cultural etiquette here would be helpful.) The information that Makhmalbaf recut Boycott for this retrospective because he was dissatisfied with it, correct or incorrect, was furnished to me by the series curator, Alissa Simon.
I especially regret what I perceive as elements of fear and mistrust expressed in both these letters, which imply that misgivings about certain major filmmakers can't be tolerated. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa might have done us all a favor by indicating what "great parts of Makhmalbaf's works" I failed to appreciate, as well as her estimation of which of his later and stronger works I should have emphasized. And, for the record, some Iranians have described Makhmalbaf to me as a "crazy" and/or neurotic filmmaker--adjectives used with obvious affection and irony, to be sure, but still used. Maybe the fact that these words were spoken to me privately, not publicly, is what's really at issue.