- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf has issued a defense of one of his actors, who has been identified by law enforcement authorities as a long-sought U.S. assassin.
Mr. Makhmalbaf, who wrote and directed the critically acclaimed film "Kandahar," also said that if he again meets Tabib Sahib, who plays a doctor in his film, he will "make a film with him about the murder he committed."
"David Belfield is the aged and ripened version of any passionate young man in every corner of this Godforsaken world, who, thinking of other people's freedom and sustenance, reaches for a gun," Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote in a 51-page statement on his Web site.
Belfield, 51, is wanted for murder in the 1980 assassination of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, an Iranian critic of the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Posing as a mail carrier, Belfield shot Mr. Tabatabai to death at his Bethesda home, police said.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said this month he had confirmed that the English-speaking black American doctor in "Kandahar" who was identified as "Hassan Tantai" in the film's credits was David Belfield.
Belfield fled to Iran after killing Mr. Tabatabai. The former student at Howard University admitted the killing in TV and newspaper interviews in the 1990s.
Mr. Makhmalbaf called the controversy over the true identity of Hassan Tantai "inane," and in his lengthy Internet statement, "The Trial of Che Guevara in Gandhi's Court," he attacked The Washington Times for reporting on the actor's past and refused to criticize Belfield for slaying Mr. Tabatabai.
"While I categorically denounce any kind of violence, I cannot condemn his past actions, which were predicated on his past convictions, on the basis of other people's present beliefs," the director wrote. He went on to call the man he knew and worked with a "superior human being."
"Even if the actor in 'Kandahar' is really a murderer, I have turned an American murderer into a reformist who regrets violence," the director said.
As for whether he would have hired Mr. Tantai for his film had he known the actor was a killer, the Iranian director said, "Yes, of course."
"I would have made a film with him about the murder that he committed, in order to explore why is it that in the civilized and opulent United States, a black man commits a political assassination and then escapes to a country like Iran, which has a tense relationship with the United States."
Mr. Makhmalbaf says that if he meets Mr. Tantai again, "I will make that film."
In his rambling discourse, Mr. Makhmalbaf charged that Mr. Tabatabai was an "active and prominent member of SAVAK, the Shah's secret service."
This was at the "time of the Iranian revolution when the entire Iranian nation was searching for members of SAVAK in order to destroy them," explained the same filmmaker who claimed to "categorically denounce any" violence.
Mr. Tabatabai's surviving twin, D.C. resident M.R. Tabatabai, strongly denied that his brother was a SAVAK member.
"That's an absolute lie. He was not one of them my brother fled Iran in 1972 because he feared SAVAK would take his life," Mr. Tabatabai said.
The director called The Times "right-wing," and dismissed the story as a bid to sell papers.
"Suffice it to say that the legitimacy of Washington Times next to prominent American newspapers is something like Joe Schmoe next to William Shakespeare," he said.
Regardless of this belief, Mr. Makhmalbaf's statement acknowledged that the story also was reported by Time magazine. Other news organizations that have reported the story include the New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News and, locally, WRC-TV, an NBC affiliate.
The director also said he thinks Mr. Tantai's past was made public because of a dispute over "Kandahar's" distribution rights.
New York-based Avatar Films refused a bid by a larger distributor to buy the film after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Makhmalbaf said. The director said he believed the second distributor, which he did not identify, created the flap as revenge against Avatar.
However, the reports that the film's co-star is likely a fugitive assassin have coincided with increased box-office business. "Kandahar" first opened at one screen in New York but quickly expanded to four other theaters.
It opened at Visions Cinema/Bistro Lounge in the District on Jan. 4 and was scheduled to continue there through Feb. 7. "It's doing very well," a theater employee, who refused to give her name, said yesterday.

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