Iran Cracks Down on Mohammad Rasoulof—Again

Mohammad Rasoulof

Not long after Cannes announced that Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig would premiere in this year’s competition, Iranian authorities began harassing the film’s producers and cast members. Called in for questioning, some for hours at a time, and some banned from leaving the country, these actors and producers were pressured to persuade Rasoulof to withdraw the film from the festival. That didn’t happen. On Wednesday, Babak Paknia, a human-rights lawyer representing Rasoulof, broke the news that the filmmaker had been sentenced to eight years in prison, flogging, a fine, and the confiscation of property.

In both his work and life, Rasoulof has been wrestling with the Iranian judicial system since the beginning of his career. His first feature, The Twilight (2002), made when he was thirty, focuses on the relationship between a violent and troublesome prisoner and a sympathetic warden. In Variety, Dennis Harvey called The Twilight, which won the Crystal Simorgh award for the Best First Film at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, a “very modest, earnest exercise in old-school social problem cinema [that] ultimately proves that the related issues are pretty much the same the world over.”

In Iron Island (2005), squatters have taken over an abandoned oil tanker. “Their self-appointed leader is Captain Nemat (the veteran Iranian actor Ali Nasirian), a grizzled seadog who works his willing constituents like an old-time ward heeler, dispensing largess, settling disputes and cutting backroom deals,” wrote Dave Kehr in the New York Times. Rasoulof “makes bold use of symbolic imagery—a satellite television is confiscated and tossed overboard—suggesting that utopias inevitably come at the price of isolation and authoritarianism.”

The “striking visuals and pointed metaphors” of Iron Island “were merely a run-up to the eye-catching compositions and invented mythologies of The White Meadows,” wrote Jay Weissberg for Variety in 2009. Writing for Slant, Nick Schager called the film a “gorgeously wrought fable trading in subtle, if nonetheless unmistakable, social commentary [that] employs indigenous folklore for a poignant critique of oppression and the sorrow it spawns, following middle-aged Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) as he travels to remote islands collecting the tears of the grief-stricken.”

By the time The White Meadows won the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca, Rasoulof and his frequent collaborator, Jafar Panahi, who edited the film, had been arrested. The charge was a variation of the same accusations leveled against both filmmakers throughout the coming years, namely, collusion with the intention of committing crimes that threaten Iran’s national security. Rasoulof’s six-year sentence was eventually reduced to one year, but the ban on filmmaking was supposed to have held for twenty years. He was not cowed.

“Harrowing, defiant, and exemplifying through its very existence the moral courage its totalitarian villains stamp down, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn exposes the brutal measures Iran’s government takes against free expression, and does this so powerfully that, for fear of retaliation, its credits list no cast or crew member besides Rasoulof,” wrote Alan Scherstuhl in the Village Voice when the 2013 film arrived in New York. “While wrenching and audacious,” Manuscripts Don’t Burn—which won the FIPRESCI Prize when it premiered in the Un Certain Regard program in Cannes—“is crafted with that humane and observational mastery of great Iranian cinema of recent decades: Even the lugs punishing writers for the state turn out to be regular guys battling their own consciences.”

A Man of Integrity (2017) won the Un Certain Regard Award and led to another one-year sentence and the confiscation of Rasoulof’s passport. The film is “a drama of kleptocratic corruption, and it depicts Iran as a virtual gangster state in which the impunity that starts at the top pervades the entire establishment of business, religion, and government,” wrote the New Yorker’s Richard Brody in 2022. “The palm grease and petty trafficking of daily life in Iran is thrust into the foreground, as if in an X-ray of the innards of society—a cold, curt, and clinical manner in which Rasoulof contains and conveys his rage.”

In 2019, Rasoulof appealed yet another one-year sentence, and as a sign of solidarity, Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, and several other Iranian directors accompanied him on his way to court. Despite the ban on filmmaking, Rasoulof managed to complete There Is No Evil, a collection of four stories directly tackling the death penalty. “Not since [Krzysztof Kieślowski’s] A Short Film About Killing has a filmmaker produced such a thrilling case against capital punishment, an enraging, enthralling, enduring testament to the oppressed,” wrote Ed Frankl at the Film Stage. There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear, the Berlinale’s top prize, but Rasoulof was kept from attending. His daughter, Baran Rasoulof, who appears in the film, accepted the award.

None of the bans on traveling and filmmaking and none of the previous prison sentences come anywhere near the severity of the punishment handed down on Wednesday. In an email to the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, Paknia notes that Rasoulof is accused of making [The Seed of the Sacred Fig] without obtaining a license from the related authorities, alongside accusations that the actresses were not applying hijab properly and were filmed without hijab. All key members of the film are banned from leaving the country and have been investigated by the security forces of the Ministry of Intelligence.”

In the new film, a judge for the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran suspects that his wife and daughters have something to do with the fact that his gun has gone missing while protests rage across the nation. The official synopsis for the film provided by distributor Films Boutique doesn’t mention the Woman, Life, Freedom movement explicitly, but as a reminder, in the fall of 2022, Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman also known as Jina, was arrested by Guidance Patrol officers for not wearing her hijab properly, beaten, transferred to Tehran’s morality police, and eventually, admitted to a hospital, where she died.

The new issue of e-flux Journal that appeared this week is devoted entirely to “a collective reflection on the afterlife of the 2022 Jina uprising and the historical and material forces that compelled it.” All the contributors are women activists and writers who, for the sake of their safety, “use pen names to mask their identities.”

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