Home iran Iran’s Dissident Filmmaker Chose Exile to Share People’s Stories Under Dictatorship

Iran’s Dissident Filmmaker Chose Exile to Share People’s Stories Under Dictatorship

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Prominent filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof explained that the reason he recently fled Iran was to share the brutal truth of life under Iran’s theocratic regime.

In his first interview after leaving Iran, the Award-winning artist, now in Germany, told the Guardian that, due to his legal status, he had “no choice” but to leave the country because he was determined to continue telling his people’s story.

His latest film, The Seed of the Sacred Fig, will be screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It explores Iran’s protest movements following Mahsa Amini’s death in 2022, in which security forces killed over 550 protesters. The UN found the Iranian regime responsible for the physical violence that led to Amini’s death – after she was detained and beaten by “morality police” for reportedly wearing her hijab improperly.

Iran’s Culture Minister, Mohammad Mehdi Esmaeili, condemned the production and distribution of his film, calling it “illegal.”

“My mission is to be able to convey the narratives of what is going on in Iran and the situation in which we are stuck as Iranians. This is something that I cannot do in prison,” He told the Guardian, “like any other dictatorship or totalitarian system, they want absolute control over images they don’t like that confront the reality of their own being and their own system.”

The dissident filmmaker fled Iran on foot, crossing rugged mountainous borders after receiving an eight-year prison sentence, a flogging, a fine, and property confiscation for “the signing of statements and the making of films and documentaries,” which the regime claimed are “collusion to commit a crime against the country’s security.”

Although his prison sentence was first announced by the court in January and sent for execution this month, Rasoulof told the Guardian he only had a few hours to decide whether or not to stay in Iran.

A friend advised him to cut off all communication via mobile phones and computers and walk to the border. “It was a several-hour long, exhausting and extremely dangerous walk that I had to do with a guide,” Rasoulof said.

Rasoulof first announced his departure on Monday in a statement: “I arrived in Europe a few days ago after a long and complicated journey. About a month ago, my lawyers informed me that my eight-year prison sentence was confirmed in the court of appeal and would be implemented on short notice,” he said.

“Knowing that the news of my new film would be revealed very soon, I knew that, without a doubt, a new sentence would be added to these eight years. I didn’t have much time to make a decision. I had to choose between prison and leaving Iran. With a heavy heart, I chose exile. The Islamic Republic confiscated my passport in September 2017. Therefore, I had to leave Iran secretly.”

First jailed in 2010, Rasoulof was banned from making films for 20 years for creating anti-regime content. An appeal reduced the jail sentence to one year. Despite the ban, he produced There Is No Evil, a drama that captured Iranian society under the Islamic Republic regime and won the Berlinale Golden Bear.

Rasoulof was arrested in 2022 after signing a letter in which he called on military and security forces not to suppress protesters, released later that year.
He is one of dozens of celebrities punished for supporting the uprising, with several arrested, suffering travel bans, salary cuts, property confiscation and in the extreme case of dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi, the death penalty.