Defiant Iranian Directors Speak Out About Censorship, Onscreen and Off

When “There Is No Evil,” the new drama by the celebrated Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, debuted at the Berlin Film Festival on Frid...

When “There Is No Evil,” the new drama by the celebrated Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, debuted at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday, it was a bittersweet moment for Rasoulof.

Speaking through an interpreter before the film won the Golden Bear, the festival’s top prize, he explained that he could not attend the premiere because he had been banned from leaving Iran and faces a year in prison, the result of the government’s reaction to his previous film, a sharp critique of the country’s clerical leadership called “A Man of Integrity.”

Punishment like Rasoulof’s is an all-too common story in contemporary Iranian cinema, a thriving, internationally respected scene. Yet despite the government’s repressive measures — its approval is required for shoots and screenings — he and other directors have grown more emboldened to speak out, in formal letters, on awards stages, through social media and on film.

Their protests have landed against a backdrop of rising tensions throughout Iranian society.

The distrust was running high in January when the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, was killed by an American drone strike. That set off fears of a war with the United States, exacerbated by the Iranian military’s accidental attack on a Ukrainian airliner, which killed all 176 people on board; the government, in disarray, denied responsibility for three days.

And now, rising numbers of coronavirus cases and conflicting information have called the government’s credibility into question again.

The most recent period of unrest goes back to November. When Iran’s citizens staged demonstrations across the country over a gasoline price increase, security forces used firearms to quell the uprisings. Hundreds of protesters were killed, but mourners were warned not to hold public funerals.

That same month, more than 200 Iranian film professionals, including the Oscar-nominated Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”), signed an open letter condemning state censorship of “The Paternal House,” a drama about an honor killing that was banned less than a week after screening in Iran. The protest letter was described by a film critic in Iran as one of the most explicit and harshest of its kind.

Since then, a number of filmmakers have defied the government and spoken out about the unrest and the downed plane. At the Iranian Film Critics Awards on Jan. 30, Homayoun Ghanizadeh, an actor and director, dedicated his award to an engineer killed during the November protests and urged artists not to forget the fallen demonstrators. Rakhshan Bani Etemad, the country’s most prominent female filmmaker, was detained for posting a call for a nationwide vigil for the victims of the plane downing. She was held and interrogated for a few hours and eventually retracted her statement.

“It’s a very difficult environment to be an artist in and remain true to your vision,” said Jasmin Ramsey, the director of communications at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

Ghanizadeh’s statement — made on a public stage with government officials in the audience — was a “huge risk,” Ramsey said. “There’s all kinds of dangers for him.”

Meanwhile, more than 100 actors and directors had announced they would boycott the annual, government-sponsored Fajr Film Festival earlier this month, in protest of the country’s handling of the plane incident. The festival is considered the most prestigious event in Iranian cinema.

“Filmmakers are trying to address the collective trauma that everyone has experienced,” Ramsey said. “The entire society is kind of convulsing right now.”

The widespread outrage spurred by the plane downing is unlike anything Rasoulof has seen, he said, and suggested to him that his fellow Iranians were gradually becoming more outspoken.

“For the first time, people overcame the culture of keeping things quiet,” he said. They “have come out against lies, against hypocrisy, and they are no longer able to hide their anger.”

His own career mirrors the growing fury. Rasoulof resorted to allegorical stories in earlier work like “White Meadows,” so as not to “directly confront power,” he said. But he eventually felt that was “a form of accepting the tyrannical regime,” he added.

His more recent films, like “Manuscripts Don’t Burn,” based on the government’s attempt to kill prominent writers in the 1990s, are much more direct in its criticism.

Yet his rebellion comes with a price. In 2010, he and the prominent director Jafar Panahi were detained while working on a project related to the 2009 Iranian presidential election and each sentenced to six years in prison. The sentences were later reduced to one year, which neither has served yet. Panahi was banned from filmmaking for 20 years, yet he has made several award-winning movies since.

Rasoulof was held in solitary confinement for eight days and could not communicate with his family, he said. He believed his work could endanger them, so his wife and daughter moved to Germany soon after.

In 2017, his “Man of Integrity” won the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival. When he returned to Iran, authorities confiscated his passport, charged him with propaganda against the state and in July sentenced him to a year in prison. (Cannes and others issued a statement condemning the sentence soon after.)

Some filmmakers, like the Istanbul-based Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi (“No One Knows About Persian Cats”), have chosen to leave the country to work. But there are lesser-known artists who don’t have the means to emigrate or the status to generate international attention when the government subjects them to harsh punishment.

Hossein Rajabian, for example, was held in solitary confinement for two months over his movie about women’s right to divorce in Iran. Later, he was convicted on three charges, including spreading propaganda against the state, and imprisoned for nearly three years.

That film was never screened in Iran; Rajabian uploaded it to YouTube before his imprisonment, but it was removed at the request of the Iranian Film Council. He recently completed a new movie, which he plans to release online through BBC Persia to avoid the government’s censors. Speaking through an interpreter, Rajabian said the film conveys the disillusionment of young Iranians who feel trapped in their own country.

“The previous generation had promised to bring us freedom” after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, he said. “But what we have, in effect, is Iran’s total isolation.”

Rasoulof emphasized a stark reality: All Iranians — not just vocal public figures — can face jail time for the most minor offenses. As for his own sentence, he said being behind bars isn’t much different from ordinary life in Iran. The country is just “a relatively large prison,” he said.

The inner turmoil that festers in people living under oppression is a recurring theme in “There Is No Evil.”

Commenting on that movie, Carlo Chatrian, the artistic director of the Berlin Film Festival, said, “politically, aesthetically and ethically, the film is engaging and powerful.”

Rasoulof was inspired after returning to Iran from Cannes in 2017, he said. All his friends had asked why he came back, and he could think of only one answer.

“This is my home,” he said. “I belong here.”

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Newsrust: Defiant Iranian Directors Speak Out About Censorship, Onscreen and Off
Defiant Iranian Directors Speak Out About Censorship, Onscreen and Off
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