I recently went to see the film “The Gardener”, which is a documentary from the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf that takes place in the Baha’i holy places in Israel. I must say… it was weird. A lot of strange camera angles, long pauses, and confusing symbolism that I find common in Iranian movies. But I suppose those are some of the very things that make people fans of Iranian cinema in the first place.
The film is basically a dialogue between Makhmalbaf and his son about the role of religion in modern day society. The two directors visit the peaceful backdrop of the Baha’i gardens in Haifa and Akka, spending time not only walking the beautiful grounds but observing and interviewing Baha’i volunteers (the gardeners).
Amid the physical beauty of the surroundings, the sense of spiritual contentment of the volunteers, and the ethnic and racial diversity of the people interviewed, the film asks the question: How do we reconcile something so seemingly peaceful and pure intentioned with the destruction that religion has caused over the generations? The elder Makhmalbaf makes the case that religion has already proven its power to motivate the human heart towards destruction, and should now be given a chance to use that power for peace and unity. He’s optimistic about its chances, and over the course of the film he himself slowly transforms from filmmaker to gardener, watering the various flowers in the garden as a clear metaphor for religion’s capacity to nurture and develop every human soul. His son is much more skeptical. All religions start with good intentions, he argues, but they all seem to end up catalyzing conflict and misery.
Religion’s role in the history of conflict is often used to argue that the human race is better off dumping the entire institution in its entirety. But this argument’s fallacious assumption is that religion must necessarily be a cause of conflict. Of course any religion that causes misery in the lives of the people it purports to benefit is better off not existing. This is a point made by Baha’u’llah himself, and repeated beautifully by one of the Baha’i volunteers in the film. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It must not be this way.
The whole purpose of the Baha’i Faith is to break from our dark collective past, and to eradicate not only the secular causes of misery, but the religious ones too. It seeks to create a tent large enough to shelter all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, nation, or any other identity, a structure whose foundation is not simply by goodwill or the cleverness of its design, but the innate power and nobility of the human heart.
What’s missing in the film is the practical element of the Faith, the part that teaches that the Resurrection of the human spirit prophesied by the great religions that preceded it has to be achieved through plenty of blood, sweat, and tears, not just silent prayer and reflection. In the first few minutes, I found myself wiggling uncomfortably in my chair at the sheer hippyishness of some of the volunteers, wondering if viewers who are unfamiliar with the Faith will simply brush it off as naive and aimless. I had to remind myself at times that this is not a promotional film about the Baha’i Faith, but an artistic look at its spiritual core as a path to a more general discussion about religion and society.
The other thing I kept thinking was: I don’t really understand why Mohsen Makhmalbaf isn’t a Baha’i. He clearly understands the essence of the Faith, because he (in his own words) articulates it so well in the movie. And he clearly has a deep sense of reverence for the Baha’i teachings. At one point, he guides his camera across one of the stone walls of the Akka prison that once contained Baha’u’llah, and beautifully repeats that Prisoner’s weighty words to one of His visitors, the great orientalist E.G. Browne. Over the course of the film, I kept thinking that Makhmalbaf is in his heart a deep admirer of the Faith who’s trying to stay just slightly on the sidelines so as not to distract his audience from the broader point of the film. Towards the end, his son finds him caring for the flowers as if he has become the gardener. “Dad, what happened to you? Are you a Baha’i now?” (I’m paraphrasing), he asks somewhat mockingly. “No”, says the father, “I am a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Zoroastrian, a Jew”, a statement that cements the transformation of his thinking since the start of the film. With those words, Makhmalbaf dances around the subject but tells us ever so carefully where he stands.
On a similar note, while watching the movie I also kept thinking of how bizarre it would seem to Iranian viewers, particularly those living in Iran. That’s because information about the Baha’i Faith in that country, the very place it emerged from, is severely restricted, and in many cases deliberately misrepresented. In the minds of many Iranians, there was a religious movement in Iran in the 19th century which essentially fizzled, leaving behind a small number of followers within the country and nothing more.
I will never forget my experience around the time of the Iranian New Year in the spring of 2006, when I was helping out at the Baha’i temple in Delhi (I was working in South India that year and had come up north as a tourist). In came bus loads of Iranians visiting India for their New Year’s vacations, whose tour guides had neglected to tell them (probably because they didn’t know themselves) that the famous “Lotus Mahal”, as it is known in Hindi, is in fact a Baha’i temple. When they found out where they were, for many it just didn’t compute. In my broken Farsi, I did my best to explain that I was from the US, that the other volunteers were young Baha’is from places like India, Iran, Canada, Germany, and Australia, and that you could find Baha’is in nearly every corner of the globe. For some people I met, I got back only a few seconds of a blank stare, and they continued on their way.
One final thought which is unrelated but hopefully worth mentioning… About halfway through, the film showed some footage from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to the United States in the early 1910s that I had never seen before. In one of the snippets, ‘Abdu’l-Baha readies himself for a photograph with a group of American believers. On each side of him sits a tiny toddler, one white and the other black. Even for someone like me, who was raised in a Baha’i family and has heard countless stories of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in my lifetime, this image was breathtaking. Here is ‘Abdu’l-Baha, at that point an old man who had spent his entire adult life confined to Persia and the Ottoman Empire as a prisoner or exile, looking so blatantly foreign and Middle Eastern with his turban, cloak, and long white beard, and so nonchalantly celebrating the oneness of the human family around him and so naturally rejecting the idiocy of racial prejudice that was so prevalent in this country one century ago. There is nothing spoken, but the image in just a few seconds speaks volumes. This really happened, I said to myself in that moment. In and of itself, that is truly a miracle.