Actually, Makhmalbaf (57) no longer lives in Iran; he left in 2005 after Mahmoud Ahmadinjad was elected president of the country. He currently resides in Paris and London, where he has become an activist in the Greens opposition movement. However, he was once an enthusiastic supporter of the Iranian Revolution and suffered imprisonment under the Shah’s regime for militant Islamic activity. His early post-revolutionary films dealt with religious themes (the trilogy beginning with Nasouh Repentance, and Boycott, for example). The fundamentalist religious establishment began turning against Makhmalbaf in the early 1990s when his films increasingly showed disillusionment with the Islamic regime. (Note that the Iran Chamber Society for Arts and Culture has not - or not yet - erased the page devoted to Makhmalbaf, although the biography ends in 2001.)
Although deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance and head of Iran’s cinema organization Javad Shamghadari described Makhmalbaf as “rootless,” his films are very much rooted in the life, politics, society and religions of his home country and its neighbors. In its tribute to Makhmalbaf, the Jerusalem festival showcased several of his films, including the award-winning (and heart-breaking) Kandahar, set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (but filmed mostly in Iran) −2001. His latest film, The Gardener (2012), which he introduced at the festival, is a docudrama centering on the role of religion in the world through discussions with representatives of the various faiths in Israel and elsewhere, including a gardener tending the grounds of the Bahai Temple in Haifa. (The Bahai religion originates in Iran.)
Prior to his visit, a group of Iranian intellectuals, including opposition figures, asked Makhmalbaf not to travel to a country with “apartheid” policies and urged him, instead, to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. In his response, given to BBC Persian, Makhmalbaf said: "... Boycotting and writing statements does not solve anything. Why don't the intellectuals try to solve the problems by travelling and having dialogue? Why is there no effort to remove religious hatred? ..."
Another group of 80 Iranian academics and activists sent an open letter to The Times of Israel praising his “bravery for breaking the taboo of visiting the state of Israel and conveying the message of friendship between Iranian people and people of Israel.” The abovementioned deputy minister Shamaghdari accused Makhmalbaf of being embraced by “criminal Zionism” and the “illegal regime” in Jerusalem. A lively debate took place on the social media among Iranian diaspora groups and bloggers within Iran.
In his speech at the festival, Makhmalbaf dedicated his award to all those struggling for peace between Iran, Israel and Palestine. Speaking to the British Guardian newspaper, he described the taboo against visiting Israel as a "cancer" that has affected Iran's intellectual community for over 60 years. He is the highest-ranking Iranian to visit Israel officially since the Iranian Revolution.
The controversy over Makhmalbaf’s visit underlines the issue of the effectiveness of cultural, sporting and other boycotts against Israel. Many international figures, such as scientist Stephen Hawking, and Pink Floyd band leader Roger Waters have either given into pressure (Hawking) or actively support the BDS movement (Waters). Others such as singer Alicia Keys and Makhmalbaf himself feel that culture should bridge rather than create barriers and that people should be “united by art,” as the latter told The Guardian.
Meanwhile the debate over Makhmalbaf and the wider issue of a cultural, scientific and academic boycott of Israel continues.