By Mohammad Mahdi Ebrahimi Nasr

Looking at life of Ayatollah Mesbah from a different POV

January 7, 2022 - 23:16

TEHRAN – The Iranian filmmaker says during the production of his documentary about Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, it was like he knew something is happening which must remain in minds of the people.

January 2, 2022, marks the first anniversary of late Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi’s demise. Ayatollah Mesbah was a prominent religious scholar and thinker who had a considerable impact in advancement of philosophical thoughts and Islamic jurisprudence in Iran.

In 2019, news spread mentioning a different documentary about the life of Ayatollah Mesbah. The film evoked diverse reactions within the country. So, we arranged an interview with Ahmad Sharifzadeh, the filmmaker who produced the documentary.

Sharifzadeh says that part of the footages he used to produce his film was actually filmed by some members of Mr. Mesbah’s family and this makes his film, somehow unique.

“One of the fruits of film for me was that perhaps I did not precisely know what I was doing, but it seems that the documentary casted a different light at Mr. Mesbah’s life”, Iranian filmmaker says. 
Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Why did you produce “That Winter?” Did Owj Arts and Media Organization or Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi Office order it? Was it your own idea?

A: There is a lot I can say about “That Winter.”  In fact, no one ordered it. Of course, there were investors, the investor was Owj Arts and Media Organization but no one had ordered it.  

Q: Where did you get the idea?

A: We had some experiences in the production of documentaries about religious scholars but we tried to do more about the contemporary scholars. 

Q: Do you mean this was some sort of a personal experience of those scholars?

A: Perhaps I had to have personal relation with him. For example, sometimes it is said the late Ayatollah Seyyd Ali Ghazi was like this or that, but for me, from the moment that I was born I liked to know how the late Ayatollah Behjat was! Because I had seen him going to masque, praying, etc. then I liked to know more. Approaching the scholars is a big topic. 

Q: How did you start with making a documentary about Ayatollah Behjat and end up by a documentary about Ayatollah Mesbah?

A: When Mr. Behjat moved from Najaf to Qom, he began to socialize for a short time and about seven people gathered around him. Only one of the seven people are now alive.  There were two or three prominent persons among them one of whom was Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. The other two were Hassan Pahlavani and Seyyd Enrahim Khosroshahi. When Ayatollah Behjat passed away, one of these people whose philosophical and political views were different from Ayatollah Mesbah told me that Ayatollah Behjat had one true student and that was Mr. Mesbah…. From that moment it struck me to approach Mr. Mesbah. Also, we had an interview with him about Ayatollah Behjat which is available in the documentary about Mr. Behjat. 

Q: When did you start to know Ayatollah Mesbah? 

A: It is not possible to live in Qom and not to know him. I watched the events after reformations era. For example, I remember the sit-down strike of the scholars of Qom in favor of Ayatollah Mesbah. I remember I had gone to Shiraz to see my parents during the strike. When I returned, I saw that Qom was in chaos. Mr. Mesbah was not my subject at that time. I was attracted to him gradually and almost after the production of “That Winter”. 

Q: Were you happy with your work when the production was finished?

A: I was sure “That Winter” was a good film. Now after three years from its production, If I’d want to make it, I may do it differently, but I am sure everything in “That Winter;” even the music, is well thought. It was better if we had made the music, but we could not due to shortage of financial resources. But we made the best choice based on our conditions. Whoever watches the film, thinks we have made the music. The music we chose was from a Spanish group which had not been used before. I believe “That Winter” showed that what we have heard about some of our renowned figures are not true. Our scholars are misrepresented. “That Winter” is not a political film. 

Q: One of the most important scenes of the film is about voting and elections.

A: Mr. Dehghani did us a favor and allowed us to use the scene in which he talks about the parliament and is related to people’s votes. This seems to be the most important scene of the film in knowing Ayatollah Mesbah and the political part of the movie. In this scene, Mr. Mesbah discusses about a topic which media had misinterpreted for the audience. One of the closest people to Mr. Mesbah after watching the movie was surprised and told me he had no idea about it.

Q: When one reads Ayatollah Mesbah ’s books, especially those about topical interpretation of the Quran, he understands that there is a big difference between what people say about him with what he writes in his books. 

A: As you said, when you read Mr. Mesbah’s books you say what a free-thinker he is. You don’t find him politically affiliated to any specific political party. I had a two-hours interview with professor Legenhausen about Mr. Mesbah that if you listen to, you will know the free-minded personality of Mr. Mesbah. For example, when someone is converted from Christianity to Islam, it is interesting that Mr. Mesbah tells him just talk about Christianity. I was surprised in that interview when Professor Legenhausen was talking about Mr. Mesbah. I told him Mr. Mesbah is not like that. He said I was wrong and trust his memories of Mr. Mesbah.

Q: Why you did not use narration to explain why it is important to talk about Mr. Mesbah? 

A: One of the fruits of “That Winter” for me was that perhaps I did not know what I was doing, but it seems that the documentary casts a different light at Mr. Mesbah’s life. Everything in the work is intentional. There is no interview in it because we wanted audience to make a direct contact with Mr. Mesbah. There is no narration throughout the film and there are just captions to show location and time of the scene and also some headlines from newspapers because events must be studied from their historical context. Newspaper headlines reported and attributed something to him which was not true. 

Q: Did you consult with Mr. Mesbah about what you were planning to do?

A: No never. There was institute’s camera recording Mr. Mesbah’s speeches and we set up our camera. Mr. Mesbah was very clever. He knew what was going on, but his trust was gradually built. At the start, we did not go close to him but after the session, the camera recorded him when he was in the back room but we kept distance and did not even use microphone for him. He had a bad health in 1394 which was the cause of his death. We recorded three or four sessions and he got sick. The project stopped during his illness. After he recovered, he looked very fatigue which is clear in the next 60 sessions we have recorded.  

It seems that Mr. Mesbah recovered one more time to leave some things behind from himself and he did it. One of the advantages of our work was the fact that he has narrated his biography in 34 sessions. It is not part of these 70 sessions and that has been done after “That Winter”. Mr. Mesbah has narrated his biography for his family in 34 sessions, each two hours. When he went to Tehran for a check-up, I requested his family to accompany them. They rejected but I told them “Hospital is a place that we may be able to come close to him”. His family did not agree with this suggestion and we gave them a camera for recording films in hospital. Physicians decided not to do surgery on his liver and suggested to work on his eye problem which was a minor surgery. I placed the camera in the corner of the room and recorded everything. But Mr. Mesbah had agreed with us to go to hospital for working and our group went to the hospital and started “That Winter” and we had him alone for 36 hours. 

Finally, Mr. Mesbah trusted us. We recorded everything he did. We went to his sessions whenever they were held and after 20 sessions, he noticed what we were doing. 

Q: There seems to be a certain script throughout the documentary!

A: Yes. Our relationship with Mr. Mesbah gradually was established. There is a part in “That Winter” where he tells professor Legenhausen “think that they do not exist”. We created this atmosphere for him. during all 70 sessions that we were with him, we never asked him to do something, not even to move his foot a step further. If we had done it, he would have thrown us out of the room. Mr. Mesbah had never allowed any group to join the sessions and sometime did not even let in the camera of the institute. 

In one scene, he wanted to visit his spouse. I asked Mojtaba and his son if was it possible for us to be there? He said “Haj Agha will not allow”. I told them “We will stand out and just listen to his voice”. I asked him to talk to Mr. Mesbah about it. From the first day of recording till the end of the editing which took three and a half years, I did not speak with Mr. Mesbah more than two sentences. That was our way when working with all the scholars and it worked. That means we tried not to intervene as if we did not exist. 

Q: Perhaps this is the reason he is comfortable before the camera.

A: Sometimes I left the camera in the room and waited outside to make him comfortable. Interestingly, Mr. Mesbah felt comfortable with the camera; none of the scholars were so comfortable in front of camera. It was like we did not exist but this happened after several sessions. For example, the scene in hospital in which his phone rings. A call with Mr. Mesbah about a political issue in the hospital made him angry. In one of the calls, he said “I think continuing the conversation is not wise”. 

Q: Did you film the parts in his house?

A: We had no problem with filming him. But for the scenes inside the house, we had taught his family to do it by themselves. 

Q: What were the manifestations of that trust and bond?

A: I got married in 1395. I gave an invitation card to Mr. Mesbah’s grandchild who used to take films for us from the inside of the house. I told him that I will be very happy if Mr. Mesbah comes to the ceremony. My brother called me on the wedding day and said that Mr. Mesbah had arrived and his companions were waiting in front of the door. I told my brother that I had sent him a card out of respect, but I do not know anything more. Anyway, he joined my wedding ceremony for an hour. It was a wonderful time. I feel that he had seen our efforts and wanted to encourage us to continue our work, though he had never let any group to go to his house for filming. 

My admiration for him grew when I produced the documentary not for his fans but for his critics.  Of course, his fans are among audiences, but it is not made specifically for them. Mr. Mohammad Ali Abtahi had watched “That Winter” in the Haqiqat Film Festival and told me “You have sanctified Mr. Mesbah”. I answered, “I have narrated Mr. Mesbah”. Some audience with different attitude from Mr. Mesbah or some with irreligious attitudes said “how cool Mr. Mesbah is.” After the production of the movie, I was sure some people would not allow it to be released.  We wanted to make the film in such a way that the general audience do not think we have judged Mr. Mesbah and I have not had any judgment so far. Of course, “That Winter” is my film which shows Mr. Mesbah from my eyes at that time. It may differ during the production of the new work I am currently making.

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