Made in 1995 for the centenary of cinema, Hello Cinema (aka Salaam Cinema) is a unique blend of film audition (casting call), essay film (seamlessly blending documentary and fiction) and mockumentary. It is the ultimate philosophical and epistemological film. It insistently raises profound and controversial questions about the ethics of filmmaking, the role of the director, their relationship with the actors, and the very nature of purity/honesty.
Famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf invites crowds for a casting call in Tehran. Thousands of aspiring actors grapple for an audition with the director. Those selected are repeatedly demanded to cry on cue, asked about the reasons why they want to act and then – to their disappointment – told that the audition is the film per se. The formidable Makhmalbaf often raises ethical questions about the nature of cinema, thereby subverting the foundations of filmmaking.
A cameraman films the large crowds from the top of his vehicle, while others film him from the ground with a handheld camera. The filming equipment is clearly visible throughout the film. The intrusive movie camera becomes a character per se.
Indoors, most of the cameras are on a tripod. They too are clearly visible. The equipment becomes a prop, carefully arranged amongst the various characters. At one point, someone changes the film reel and operates the light on a stand. By foregrounding the cinematic apparatus, the filmmaker (Makhmalbaf) is constantly reminding viewers that this is a film (ie a representation of reality, and not reality per se).
The cameras capture the director and the aspiring actors from various angles, often subverting the 180 degrees rule, thereby creating a sense of confusion and alienation. These sentiments are essential to the story. The filmmaker consistently confounds, confronts and interrogates the aspiring actors. Ultimately, the filmmaker wishes to confound, confront and interrogate viewers (not just the actors). The actors are just a proxy (a stand-in) for us vulnerable and gullible viewers.
Playfulness prevails throughout Salaam Cinema. Nothing is sacred. It is never clear which elements of the narrative, the camerawork, the dialogues, the relationship between the filmmakers and the aspiring actors was constructed. It is impossible to separate fiction from reality.
Makhmalbaf repeatedly asks the aspiring actors to cry on cue. He mercilessly times it: “you have 30 seconds”; “now you have 10 seconds”, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,eight, nine, 10…”. Crying on cue becomes the ultimate gauge of one’s ability to act.
Just like myself in my second film The Flour Test (2022), Makhmalbaf is a manipulator and a tormentor. This authoritarian demeanour is a subtle political comment on the tactics that the Iranian government use in order to oppress their people.
The director eventually achieves such result: a man cries on cue (pictured below). However, it’s not clear whether the tears were the outcome of good acting or whether the aspiring actor was terrified by the director’s elicitation techniques. The line between acting and self becomes blurred.
Salaam Cinema tacitly raises the question: Is the sadism of the filmmaker combined with the merciless machinations of cinema causing actors to cry for real – or are audiences being tricked?
An aspiring actress says she always dreamed of acting. Makhmalbaf succinctly retorts: ““What if I said your role is being yourself, would you want to be an actress”. He then goes on and reveals: “this was your role”. Some of the aspiring actors are disappointed at the realisation that their role was being themselves. This raises a vital question about the nature documentary and its relationship with fiction: is being yourself (as in a documentary) a lesser art than acting (as in fiction).
The director wishes to further confound the already complex relationship between a) the filmmaker and the actor; and b) the real self and the actor. Audiences are left to answer manifold questions and reflect about the nature of cinema. These complex interrogations resonate with 1) reality television; and 2) the #MeToo movement. Salaam Cinema predates both. Makhmalbaf’s 1996 film not only celebrates the history of cinema but it also prognosticates its future.
During another significant moment the filmmaker provokes a man called Feizollah (presumably a former prison mate): ““In prison you didn’t cry even under torture”. Yet another subtle political comment, this time with a very personal element. Makhmalbaf had been previously arrested and tortured by the Iranian government. It is very courageous to address this topic in a film subjected to Iranian censorship. By doing this, he demonstrates 1) that cinema is a tool for personal liberation; and 2) that the filmmaker is as vulnerable (or perhaps even more vulnerable) than the actors. The sadistic, formidable and controlling director is but a masquerade.
In the film’s penultimate scene, the filmmaker invites two actresses to take his position and act as if they were the filmmaker/casting director. They are asked to emulate Makhmalbaf and demand that aspiring actors and actresses cry on cue, causing fear and distress. Makhmalbaf then confronts them: “how could you be as cruel as I?”. Here he exposes an inextricable complicity between the filmmaker, the actor and also the viewer. All three extract gratification from the cinematic experience: through sadism, through voyeurism or also through vicarious pleasures.
The film’s final sequence is also deeply provocative. It challenges the idea that a film should offer closure. Makhmalbaf asks an actress to write “it continues” (instead of “the end”) on the clapperboard and hold it for the camera. This is subversive on various levels: 1) the clapperboard should not appear in the film; 2) it is not the role of the actor to hold the clapperboard; 3) a clapperboard is used at the opening and not at the end of the sequence; and 4) a film should have an end, unless a sequel is intended (Salaam Cinema does not have a sequel). The “it continues” refers to the history and also to the fast-changing nature of cinema. Film is a beast under constant mutation.
Makhmalbaf’s playfulness inspired me to become a film journalist and then a filmmaker. My mind is very subversive, and Salaam Cinema made me realise that it is both possible and desirable to challenge the long-established orthodoxies of film.
At a taut 70 minutes, Salaam Cinema offers a poignant tribute to the seventh art, while also inviting filmmakers to create new languages and formulas.