It was a poignant meeting of cultures and minds at this week’s premiere in Israel of “The Gardener,” a documentary by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Makhmalbaf’s film, shot mostly in Haifa and Jerusalem’s Old City, is a documentary chronicling the journey of the filmmaker and his son, who travel to Israel to learn about the Baha’i faith, a secretive religion that emphasizes the spiritual unity of all mankind. Makhmalbaf said he was amazed at how much Israel reminded him of his own homeland.

“When we were in Haifa especially, I thought I was in Iran,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “Even the markets are the same; it shocked me.”

Makhmalbaf was banned from Iran eight years ago, when his more than 30 books and films that address Western ideologies of democracy and freedom from religion and authoritarian dictatorship were marked as propaganda and banned by the Iranian government. Since fleeing Iran, Makhmalbaf and his filmmaking family have shuffled around Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Paris, but he said he was driven out of each place because of terrorist plots against him.

One such attack took place in Afghanistan, he said, when he was shooting the award-winning 2001 film “Kandahar,” about an Afghani woman from Canada who travels through pre-9/11 Afghanistan, during the rule of the Taliban, to find her sister. According to Makhmalbaf, the Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei sent terrorists to drop a grenade during the middle of shooting a scene. One person died and numerous others were injured.

“That’s when the Iranian government started printing articles against me and my work. They put out a notice saying they would go to any lengths to kill me,” he said.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf talking about Iran, freedom and Israel's similarities to his native country (photo credit: Leeor Bronis/Times of Israel)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf talking about Iran, freedom and Israel’s similarities to his native country. (photo credit: Leeor Bronis/Times of Israel)

Makhmalbaf and his family later found refuge in London, where they live to his day. While he now can only see his country from a distance, he said he uses his filmmaking as a catalyst to educate Iranian people about democracy.

“One million young people graduate university every year in Iran,” said Makhmalbaf. “They don’t need atomic bombs; they need freedom and love.”

Makhmalbaf has been a strong supporter of Israel, saying he wishes Iranians and Israelis could visit each other’s countries. One of the things he found most fascinating about the country, he said, is the way many of its citizens strive to create a way to live peacefully together.

“I found out there is a solution between people. Even if the government can’t fix it, they can talk to each other,” he said.

The film festival featured a series of Makhmalbaf’s films during the 10-day event, in a “Tribute to Makhmalbaf,” showcasing four of his past works and a special July 10 screening of “The Gardener,” after which the filmmaker received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Peace and Freedom.

(Other award winners at the 30th film festival included the Haggiag Family Award for Israeli Cinema for Best Full-Length Feature, awarded to “Youth,” directed by Tom Shoval, and produced by Gal Greenspan, Roi Kurland, and Moshe and Leon Edery. The winner of the Van Leer Award for Israeli Cinema for Best Documentary Film was “Life Sentences,directed and produced by Nurit Kedar and Yaron Shani.

The Pirchi Family Award in Memory of Anat Pirchi for Best Screenplay in a Full-Length Feature went to scriptwriter Adi Adwan, for the film “Arabani.”)

The final movies in the Jerusalem Film Festival will be shown throughout the weekend, concluding on Sunday night.