When “There is no harm”, the new drama by famous Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, made its debut 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 first prize, he explained that he could not attend the premiere because it had been banned to leave Iran and face a year in prison, a result of the government’s reaction to its previous film, a sharp criticism of the country’s clerical leadership called “A Man of Integrity.”
Punishment like that of Rasoulof is an all too common story in contemporary Iranian cinema, a flourishing and internationally respected scene. Yet despite government crackdowns – government approval required for filming and screenings – he and other filmmakers are increasingly encouraged to speak in official letters about the stages of the awards, the social media and on movies.
Their protests have landed amid growing tensions in Iranian society.
Mistrust was at its height in January when the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Qassim Suleimani, was killed by an American drone strike. This raised fears of a war with the United States, exacerbated by the Iranian army’s accidental attack on a Ukrainian airliner, which killed the 176 people on board; the government, in disarray, denied any responsibility for three days.
And now the growing number of coronavirus cases and conflicting reports have called into question the government’s credibility.
The last period of unrest dates back to November, when Iranian citizens staged protests across the country over rising fuel prices, security forces used firearms to quell the uprisings. Hundreds of protesters were killed, but mourners were warned not to hold a public funeral.
That same month, more than 200 Iranian film professionals, including Oscar-nominated Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”), signed an open letter condemning state censorship of “The Father’s House,” a crime drama. of honor which was banned less than a week after the screening in Iran. The protest letter was described by an Iranian film critic as one of the most explicit and harsh of the genre.
Since then, a number of filmmakers have challenged the government and denounced the unrest and the plane that was shot down. At the Iranian Film Critics Awards on January 30, actor and director Homayoun Ghanizadeh dedicated his award to an engineer killed during the November protests and urged artists not to forget the fallen protesters. Rakhshan Bani Etemad, the country’s most prominent filmmaker, was arrested for publishing a call for a national vigil for the victims of the plane crash. She was detained and interrogated for a few hours and finally withdrew her statement.
“It’s a very difficult environment to be an artist and stay true to your vision,” said Jasmin Ramsey, director of communications at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a non-profit organization based in New York.
Ghanizadeh’s statement – made on a public stage with government officials in the audience – was a “huge risk,” said Ramsey. “There are all kinds of dangers for him.”
Meanwhile, more than 100 actors and directors have announced that they will boycott the annual government-sponsored program. Fajr Film Festival earlier this month to protest the country’s handling of the plane crash. The festival is considered to be the most prestigious event in Iranian cinema.
“The filmmakers are trying to remedy the collective trauma that everyone has experienced,” said Ramsey. “The whole society is sort of convulsing right now.”
The widespread outrage over the plane’s crash is unlike anything Rasoulof saw, he said, and suggested to him that his fellow Iranians were gradually becoming more outspoken.
“For the first time, people have overcome the culture of silence,” he said. They “spoke out against lying, against hypocrisy, and they are no longer able to hide their anger.”
Her own career reflects growing fury. Rasoulof had used allegorical stories in earlier works like “White Meadows,” so as not to “face power directly,” he said. But he finally considered it to be “a form of acceptance of the tyrannical regime,” he added.
Yet his rebellion has a price. In 2010, he and prominent director Jafar Panahi were arrested while working on a project related to the 2009 Iranian presidential election, and each was sentenced to six years in prison. The sentences were then reduced to one year, neither of which had yet been served. Panahi was banned from cinema for 20 years, but has made several award-winning films since.
Rasoulof was held in solitary confinement for eight days and was unable to communicate with his family, he said. He thought his job could put them at risk, 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. Upon his return to Iran, the authorities confiscated his passport, charged him with propaganda against the state, and sentenced him in July to one year in prison. (Cannes and others released a statement condemning the sentence soon after.)
Some filmmakers, such as the Iranian-Kurdish director based in Istanbul Bahman Ghobadi (“No one knows Persian cats”), have chosen to leave the country to work. But there are lesser-known artists who do not have the means to emigrate or the status to attract international attention when the government subjects them to severe penalties.
Hossein Rajabian, for example, was held in solitary confinement for two months for his film on women’s right to divorce in Iran. He was later convicted on three counts, including disseminating propaganda against the state, and imprisoned for almost three years.
This film has never been shown in Iran; Rajabian uploaded it to YouTube before his imprisonment, but it was removed at the request of the Iranian Film Council. He recently finished a new film, which he plans to publish online via BBC Persia to avoid government 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 1979 Islamic revolution, he said. “But what we do have, in fact, is the total isolation of Iran.”
Rasoulof underlined a harsh reality: all Iranians – not just vocal public figures – can be sentenced to prison terms for the most minor crimes. As for his own sentence, he said that being behind bars is not much different from ordinary life in Iran. The country is just “a relatively large prison,” he said.
The inner turmoil plaguing people living under oppression is a recurring theme in “There is no harm.”
Commenting on the film, Carlo Chatrian, the artistic director of the Berlin Film Festival, said: “Politically, aesthetically and ethically, the film is engaging and powerful.” said
Rasoulof was inspired after his return to Iran from Cannes in 2017, he said. All his friends had asked why he came back and he could only think of one answer.
“This is my house,” he said. “I belong here.”