Tending tolerance in ‘The Gardener’

Movies from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” have stirred political passions and ruffled international diplomatic feathers, and now comes “The Gardener.”

There are a number of ironies about this lyrical documentary. To start with, one of Iran’s greatest directors shot it in Israel, the Zionist bête noire of his country’s regime.

It is a movie about the common humanity and worth of men and women everywhere but has been met with emotional denunciations of the director in his native Tehran.

The director, writer, cinematographer and a main character of the movie is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most prolific and honored auteurs, whose 2001 movie “Kandahar” — about an Afghan woman traveling through Taliban-ruled parts of her country — was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest 100 films of all time.

“Gardener” does not fit the common catchwords of today’s movie reviews. The film has been categorized as a surreal docudrama, but it is also a prolonged inquiry into the virtues and evils of organized religion and into the art of horticulture.

Not least, it offers an extended tour of one of the most beautiful spots in Israel, the Baha’i World Center and gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the city and port of Haifa.

Working with the 57-year-old director is his son, Maysam Makhmalbaf (for simplicity’s sake, we will refer to father and son by their first names), who also serves as the irreverent voice of the younger generation and his father’s sparring partner in religious disputes.

The film’s title character is Ririva “Eona” Mabi, a middle-aged man from Papua New Guinea, who goes about tending the gardens’ magnificent flora not as a repetitive chore but as a form of prayer and worship.

In one slow, lovely scene, Eona carries some water in his cupped hands and then feeds it, drop by drop, into the leaves and stem of a single flower.

It speaks to the sometimes-odd symbolism of the movie to later see Mohsen imitate the gardener by planting the single leg to which his camera is attached into the ground, anointing the camera with water from his cupped hands.

While both Mohsen and Maysam persistently film one another in the process of filming their subjects, the father’s focus is on the gardener — working, napping, watching birds fly overhead — plumbing new depths of the man’s character.

The son is more restless and eclectic, in one passage interviewing three young Baha’i volunteers, all Americans, who had come to work at the center of their faith.

Maysam also leaves the gardens briefly and takes his camera to the Old City of Jerusalem to film three faiths at prayer — Jews at the Western Wall, Muslims at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

As he wanders, Maysam muses that all religions use the same rituals and similar interior architectures, the same candles and contrasts between dark and light, “everything to leave reality and enter a metaphysical world.”

The young Iranian also can’t help wondering what would happen if his native country went nuclear and bombed the Western Wall, which would leave the sacred Islamic Al-Aqsa in rubble.

Baha’ism was founded nearly 170 years ago in Persia and holds that every religion represents one facet of God, that divine revelation is a continuing process, that all humans, men and women, are equal and advocates universal education and world peace.

Its founder was promptly exiled to an Ottoman penal colony in Acre, another Baha’i holy site in Israel, and members of the faith have been intermittently persecuted in its founding country.

The film’s setting lends itself naturally to a running debate between father and son on the nature of religion.

“All wars have their roots in organized religion,” argues the younger man, to which the older man responds that the younger generation has substituted worship of technology for religion and points to the peaceful philosophy of their Baha’i hosts.

Young Maysam remains skeptical. “If the Baha’i were in power, they would start persecuting other faiths,” he maintains.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf knows something about the intolerance of those in power, whether religious or secular.

As a young filmmaker, he was imprisoned for four years by the shah’s regime, and was an ardent supporter of the clerical revolution that toppled the shah. Gradually, however, he became disillusioned with the new rulers, and after the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Makhmalbaf went into exile and now lives in London.

For the present Iranian authorities it was bad enough that Mohsen broke the taboo against shooting a film in the land of the Zionist Little Satan, but when he accepted a special jury prize last month at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Iranian establishment went ballistic.

He was denounced as a traitor and as a man “with no roots,” while the head of the Film Museum of Iran ordered the “cleansing” of a special section at the museum devoted to the director’s works.

One group of Iranian artists and intellectuals expressed deep dismay that the director would visit a country with “apartheid” policies.

However, a smaller but still sizable group of artists lauded Mohsen in an open letter for his courage in breaking the taboo against visiting Israel. Speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian, the director himself described the taboo as a “cancer” infecting Iran’s intellectual community for more than 60 years.

In his acceptance speech at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Mohsen dedicated his prize to “all the artists, politicians and intellectuals and people in Iran and Israel who work toward peace between our two countries and believe peace is possible.”

“The Gardener” opens Aug. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Road to radicalization from Toulouse to Kandahar

For Mohamed Merah, the Frenchman suspected of killing four Jews and three Muslim soldiers in southwestern France, the road to radicalization ran from Toulouse to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Merah, 24, who was holed up in a suburban Toulouse apartment on Wednesday, besieged by police commandos from the elite RAID unit, claimed affiliation with al Qaeda and said he wanted to avenge Palestinian children, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.

The suspect, a French citizen of Algerian origin, had been under surveillance by France’s domestic intelligence service for several years after being identified in Afghanistan. But he led a normal life of soccer and night clubbing, according to friends and neighbors who had no idea that he had been in Afghanistan.

Merah had a police record for several minor offenses, some involving violence, Gueant told reporters, “but there was no evidence that he was planning such criminal actions.”

As police psychologists tried to talk him into surrendering peacefully, Merah gave the same impression of calm determination and self-control as the gunman on a scooter recorded by security cameras at the Ozer Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday.

“With the RAID negotiators, he explained a lot about his itinerary,” Gueant said.

“His radicalization took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

During one of those trips, Merah was arrested in Kandahar and sentenced to three years in prison for planting bombs in the province but escaped in a mass Taliban jail break in 2008, the director of Kandahar prison told Reuters.

Ghulam Faruq said Merah was detained by Afghan security services on December 19, 2007. Afghan intelligence officials passed on his identity to their French counterparts, a security source said.


The daily Le Monde said Merah had trained with Pakistani Taliban fighters in a border tribal zone before being sent into southwestern Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces supporting the Kabul government.

French troops are part of that NATO operation, which may explain why the first victims of the gunman’s killing spree were serving paratroopers killed in Toulouse on March 11 and Montauban on March 15.

French intelligence sources said about 30 French fighters trained by the Taliban were believed to have taken part in attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.

Gueant said the Salafist group to which Merah belonged had no official name and had never given any indication of turning to criminal activity. Police were still trying to determine whether the gunman acted alone or as part of a group.

Merah’s mother, elder brother and two sisters were detained by police on Tuesday and negotiators sought their help in trying to persuade him to turn himself in to the authorities.

“His mother said she did not wish to speak to him because she did not believe she could convince him and he would be deaf to her appeals,” Gueant said.

Merah’s profile is typical of hundreds of second- or third-generation French immigrants from North Africa who have traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan over the last two decades attracted by militant Islamist groups, security officials say.

Many were radicalized by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which triggered a wave of attacks on Jewish targets in France in the early 2000s, including arson attacks on synagogues. The number of anti-Semitic attacks declined last year, figures published by the Jewish community showed.


On his return to Toulouse, Merah led a normal life.

Cedric Lambert, 46, father of an upstairs neighbor, said Merah was friendly and had helped them about 10 months ago to carry a heavy sofa upstairs.

“He was extremely normal,” Lambert said.

A group of four 24-year-old men of similar ethnic background who said they were friends of Merah tried to go to his apartment block on Wednesday to persuade him to surrender but were stopped at a police roadblock.

All told a Reuters reporter he had never talked to them about religion and they had no idea he had been to Afghanistan.

One friend who gave his name as Kamal, a financial adviser at La Banque Postale, said he had known Merah at school and they had done soccer training together after meeting again two years ago.

“He is someone who is very discreet. He is not someone who would brag and go around and say ‘Oh look at my new girlfriend, look how great I am.’ He is very polite and always well-behaved,” Kamal said.

“He never spoke about Islam but he did pray. But we all pray five times a day. There’s nothing strange about that.”

Another friend of Moroccan origin, who gave the pseudonym Danny Dem, said Merah had tried to enlist in the French army but had been rejected. He said he had seen Merah in a city centre nightclub just last week.

Merah did not drink “but I don’t think he is any more religious than I am. I think he has just lost the plot,” Danny Dem said.

A third contemporary, who declined to give his name, said he went to primary school with Merah and they had remained friends.

“He likes football and motor-bikes like any other guy his age,” said the man, dressed in a blue French national soccer shirt. “I didn’t even know he prayed.”

French police say they have arrested 914 suspected Islamist militants since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and imprisoned 224, averting several planned attacks.

Additional reporting by Ahmad Nadem in Kandahar and Gerard Bon in Paris; writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Geert De Clercq and Peter Millership