What can one learn from a documentary about a religion when neither  of the two filmmakers has true faith in God? The younger man is agnostic and the older man, his father, is more curious.  Both are from Iran, but the documentary, “The Gardener,”  is filmed in Haifa, Israel and it is about the Baha’i Faith.

Filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf  left Iran in 2005 and has lived in Paris since 2009. Here he is with his young and impatient son Maysam Makhmalbaf. Many Iranians have heard of the Baha’i faith  but know little about it. As the documentary notes, the Baha’i faith was founded in Iran 170 years go yet doesn’t fare well in contemporary Iran. I once met a woman in Pasadena, an Iranian, who asked my about my pendant (now lost). When I told her I was a Baha’i, she withdrew her hand quickly. There is an active Baha’i community in Pasadena, with prominent members.

The people in Iran know little about the Baha’is except that they are the subject of religious persecution. The Baha’is in Iran aren’t allowed to enroll in the universities or hold public offices. Baha’i cemeteries are destroyed. I believe it would be hard to meet a Baha’i who does not know someone who has a family member or relative who has been mistreated, imprisoned or executed. When I was in England, the Baha’i sisters I knew had fled across the border and they possessed that fragile protective shell built around the memories of their escape. I am a Baha’i and so is my mother. Life in Christian America isn’t easy, but it has never been so hard as what so many Persian Baha’is have endured for their faith.

Yet we do not meet Persian Baha’is in this movie. The only Persians we meet are the two filmmakers and they produce this movie as an act of defiance. According to Wikipedia, Iranians are forbidden to travel to Israel.  The offense is punishable by imprisonment. the Makhmalbafs and their crew cannot return to Iran without risking imprisonment.

The film discusses something that is not allowed to be openly discussed in Iran.  Mohsen’s movies, those that weren’t already banned in his homeland, have now reportedly been removed from the archives of the film department’s museum. This is how gravely serious Makhmalbafs’ choice is.  You might not realize the subtext and tension as it arises unspoken as the father and son debate and disagree.

The stark contrast this situation and the first image we have of a believer may not be clear to Americans as it would to an Iranian. The first Baha’i we meet is a white woman with blonde hair, Paula Asadi from Canada. She is filmed running through the trees with a fluttering shawl. She is dressed in a white long-sleeved top and pants. She has pearl stud earrings in her ears and a pearl choker. Sometimes the film is overexposed and the details are burned out. Eventually we come to realize that her shawl is light green and not white.

Asadi exclaims, “We’re all flowers of one garden and leaves of one tree; each of the leaves is part of one whole.” She leads children in an exercise that involves dropping apples. Asadi later explains her spiritual journey toward the Baha’i faith that she embraced when she was in college.

While I’ve known Baha’is like Asadi, the image and dialogue channels visions of New Age cults.  Asadi is not necessarily the gardener of the title and you have to wonder why the two filmmakers are wandering in the gardens, talking to these particular people.

You have to understand something about Israel. While Israel is the place where Baha’is all wish to make a pilgrimage to visit the Baha’i World Centre buildings in Haifa, newly-recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Israel is not a place where the Baha’i faith is taught except by example.  The highest level of administrative authority for the Baha’is, the House of Justice, has asked all Baha’is not to teach the faith to any Israelis. Israelis have access to factual information and are welcome at the shrines and gardens, but Baha’is do not teach the faith in Israel or to Israelis. This has been the practice since the days of the Baha’i prophet, Baha’u’llah. The presence of the Baha’i faith is distinctly visible in the gardens and thus the gardeners.

In this documentary, you will learn something about Baha’u’llah and see some archival footage and photographs from his time, but you will not see his likeness. You will see that of his eldest son, Abdul’Baha.

While Mohsen wants to focus on the gardener, Ririva Eona Mabi who is from Papua New Guinea, we hear his son complain that if they wanted attention for this film, they should have gotten Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Maysam hasn’t done his homework. Rainn Wilson of “The Office” is a Baha’i and so is Eva LaRue of “CSI: Miami.”  Wilson and LaRue aren’t A-list, but they are well known yet Mohsen has noticed something about Mabi.

Mabi was happy to be accepted as a volunteer at the garden of the Baha’i World Centre buildings in Haifa.  We meet other volunteer gardeners such as Ian David Huang from California. Huang is part Taiwanese. His parents are both Baha’is. The website for the movie lists him as being from Taiwan and the United States which seems to be more a matter of perspective. Other Baha’is we encounter are Guillaume Nyagatare (Rwanda and Germany), Tjireya Tjitendero Juzgado (Angola) and Bal Kumari Gurung (Nepal).

More time is spend on Asadi and we hear more of her views than from the others, but Mohsen focuses on Mabi because he finds Mabi’s devotion to his gardening prayer-like which is in keeping with the actual Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah considered work a form of worship.

Mohsen asks his son to “Just think of it, if we had a peaceful religion, Iran would be a peaceful place” yet his son cynically counters, “The basis of war has roots in religion.” The film cuts to green parrots fighting.

The father chides, “You fail to recognize the power of religion” and we are left with the question of:  “Who fights more: Those with religion or those without?”

Perhaps the competing visions of the documentary, the generational division between father and son and the haste of youth contrasting the contemplation of one in his twilight years caused the disjunction in the latter moments of this documentary. There are scenes that seem obviously contrived and the usage of a mirror with an appropriate religious quote push this from exploratory philosophical contemplation to a more abstract art film.

Maysam makes a trip to Jerusalem where three pilgrims from three religions worship separately but there is no depth to his observations of Jews, Christians and Muslims together and no one is interviewed to give their perspectives.

Without any real input from Persian Baha’is the situation that the Makhmalbafs purportedly meant to explore remains an abstract problem in a distant country that isn’t given an emotional life, a human face and form. Without understand the significance of the Makhmalbafs presence in Israel and the consequences of filming there, the underlying tension between father and son and even the situation of the Baha’is toward Israel is left obliquely in the background. All this is lost in translation for most Americans unfamiliar with Iranian, Israeli and Baha’i cultures.

Focus on the garden and the gardener. Then you will see something of beauty that a religion created as a gift to the world, without any strings attached and perhaps you will feel that faith is worth preserving.

“The Gardener” is in Farsi and English with English subtitles. It opens on Friday, August 2, 2013 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

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