Rebel Iranian filmmakers talk about censorship, on-screen and off

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Rebel Iranian filmmakers talk about censorship, on-screen and off

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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.

“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.

His most recent films, such as “Don’t Burn Manuscripts,” based on the government’s attempt to kill prominent writers in the 1990s, is much more direct in its critics.

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.”

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