‘A period of repression’: Iran’s crackdown on filmmakers escalates

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One year after ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi came to power, Iranian authorities are targeting the country's cinema. The July arrests of directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, both icons abroad, reflect the pressure that filmmakers and actors are facing.

The Iranian film community has been asking "who will be next?" ever since Panahi and Rasoulof were arrested in July in Tehran.

Panahi, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2010 for "spreading anti-regime propaganda", is one of Iran’s most celebrated filmmakers. Most notably, he won the Golden Bear in Berlin for "Taxi Tehran" in 2015 and three years later, the screenplay prize at Cannes for "3 Faces". For his part, Rasoulof won the Golden Bear in 2020 for "There is no evil", and the prize in the "Un Certain Regard" category in Cannes for his feature "A Man of Integrity" in 2017. Both filmmakers are very well known and their arrests have been publicised abroad, but other directors have also been touched by the wave of repression that has hit Iranian cinema in recent months.

"This wave of arrests did not start with Panahi and Rasoulof," says Asal Bagheri, a teacher-researcher at Cergy-Paris University and a specialist in Iranian cinema. A few days before the Cannes festival in May, a dozen documentary filmmakers were arrested, including Mina Keshavarz and Firouzeh Khosravani, two directors who are regularly invited to France and awarded prizes at international festivals.

Bagheri fears that "this is only the beginning", as other filmmakers have also been put under pressure. Majid Barzegar and Mohsen Amir-Yousefi, two documentary filmmakers, received a summons from the Iranian justice system at the end of August.

"We are entering a period of repression that is damaging to culture," says the Iranian film specialist.

The team behind "Leila’s Brothers" under pressure

The team behind Saeed Roostaee's film, "Leila’s Brothers", which was well received at the festival and is currently showing in French cinemas, found itself in trouble following its return from Cannes.

Not only has the film, which takes a no-holds-barred look at the ravages of Iran's economic crisis, been banned in the country, but its cast and crew have also been under duress. One of the lead actors, Navid Mohammadzadeh, has had several plays suspended.

"In his film, Saeed Roostaee managed to play very intelligently with the red lines, but the film’s release at Cannes, at a time when the country has been going through a serious social crisis, has put the Iranian authorities on edge," says Bagheri.

Beyond the film's political aspect, "certain behaviour at Cannes displeased the authorities" adds the researcher. "In Iran, when a film is judged for its morality, this not only includes the film’s content but also everything that happens around it, including the attitude and statements of actors and directors in the media, especially abroad."

A joyful Mohammadzadeh kissed his wife on the steps of Cannes in front of the cameras, for the whole world to see. The Iranian authorities saw this sign of affection as immoral, even though the two artists are married.

Actress Taraneh Alidoosti, famous for her roles in several films by Asghar Farhadi, is another member of the cast of "Leila’s Brothers" whom authorities targeted. "Extremely popular in Iran, she is one of the leading figures of the #MeToo movement in the Iranian film industry and has a sharp tongue," says Bagheri.

A list of banned filmmakers

The Cinema Organisation of Iran, a body under the authority of the ministry of culture, announced on August 16 that, for the first time, a list of banned filmmakers would soon be made public. Although nothing has been decided yet, Alidoosti, whose name may be on the blacklist, has already addressed authorities in a letter posted on Instagram. The actress called the publication of such a list "unfortunate" and "illegal".

Bans were previously imposed on a case-by-case basis, according to judicial convictions of the filmmakers, or, sometimes, unofficially. "But never before have the authorities talked about an official list. This marks a repressive turning point," says Bagheri.

The arrival of Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric who was elected president in June 2021, has a lot to do with this. "The cultural community knew that repressive measures would increase once the ultraconservative government was in place. This is reminiscent of the darkest hours of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era (2005-2013), during which many documentary filmmakers were arrested."

A cinematic reflection of society

Relations between the authorities and Iranian filmmakers are also tense because the country is currently experiencing one of the worst economic crises in its history with high inflation. Iranians protested en masse in June, accusing the authorities of incompetence and corruption in the city of Abadan after a building collapsed.

"Iranian society has become increasingly vocal and bold," says Bagheri. "But the work of this wave of directors, who constitute a form of 'social cinema', reflects society’s ills. They are simply a reflection of this anger."

Filmmakers are now showing solidarity with the protesters. Some 100 leading Iranian figures, including Panahi, Rasoulof and many artists, signed a letter in June calling on the authorities to "put down their arms" in the face of the Abadan protests.

This is one of the reasons the authorities give for the recent arrests. "Some people are still under pressure and being held accountable. They are being asked to publicly withdraw their support for the petition," says Bagheri. However, none of them have yet agreed to do so.

This article is a translation of the original in French.