Iranian Filmmaker Who Was Sentenced To Prison And Flogging Escapes Iran

The Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof has secretly fled Iran after he was sentenced to prison amid pressure over his latest film, The Seed of the Sacred Fig, which is due to premiere at the Cannes film festival this week.

Jean-Christophe Simon, CEO of Films Boutique and Parallel45, distributors of the film, confirmed on Monday that Rasoulof had fled Iran for Europe. “We are very happy and much relieved that Mohammad has safely arrived in Europe after a dangerous journey. We hope he will be able to attend the Cannes premiere,” he said.

Rasoulof, 52, one of Iran’s leading directors, has won a string of international prizes at festivals even though his films have been banned in Iran. Since The Seed of the Sacred Fig was announced as part of the official competition at Cannes, the director and the festival had come under pressure from Iranian authorities to pull the film.

Last week, Rasoulof was sentenced to eight years in prison, flogging, a fine and the confiscation of property.

It was not clear how Rasoulof had left Iran, or whether he crossed the mountainous land border with Turkey.

In a statement published by Variety on Monday, Rasoulof said: “I arrived in Europe a few days ago after a long and complicated journey … 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.”

In his statement, Rasoulof criticised what he called the brutal repression of the Iranian regime. Authorities have cracked down on protests that followed the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman detained for allegedly not properly wearing the Islamic headscarf in 2022. In the largest wave of popular unrest in recent years in Iran, demonstrations against the clerical establishment have grown into a broad movement to challenge the theocracy that has ruled Iran since 1979.

The regime’s crackdown against protests has included last month’s sentencing to death of 33-year-old Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi after he protested in support of women’s rights.

Rasoulof said in his statement: “Death sentences are being executed as the Islamic Republic has targeted the lives of protesters and civil rights activists. It’s hard to believe, but right now as I’m writing this, the young rapper, Toomaj Salehi, is held in prison and has been sentenced to death. The scope and intensity of repression has reached a point of brutality where people expect news of another heinous government crime every day. The criminal machine of the Islamic Republic is continuously and systematically violating human rights.”

He said he and his colleagues, in making The Seed of the Sacred Fig, had “tried to achieve a cinematic narrative that is far from the narrative dominated by the censorship in the Islamic Republic, and closer to its reality”.

But he said his cast and crew had been threatened.

“Before the Islamic Republic’s intelligence services were informed about my film’s production, a number of the actors managed to leave Iran,” Rasoulof said. “However, many of the actors and agents of the film are still in Iran and the intelligence system is pressuring them. They have been put through lengthy interrogations. The families of some of them were summoned and threatened. Due to their appearance in this movie, court cases were filed against them, and they were banned from leaving the country.”

He said of Iranian authorities: “They raided the office of the cinematographer, and all his work equipment was taken away. They also prevented the film’s sound engineer from travelling to Canada. During the interrogations of the film crew, the intelligence forces asked them to pressure me to withdraw the film from the Cannes festival. They were trying to convince the film crew that they were not aware of the film’s story and that they had been manipulated into participating in the project.”

Babak Paknia, a human rights lawyer representing Rasoulof, said last week that the chief reasons given for his latest sentence of prison and flogging were Rasoulof’s public statements, as well as his continued involvement in making films and documentaries which the court described as “examples of collusion with the intention of committing a crime against the country’s security”.

Paknia said in an email: “He is accused of making [The Seed of the Sacred Fig] without obtaining a licence 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.”

Rasoulof won the Golden Bear, the Berlin film festival’s top prize, in 2020 with his anti-capital punishment film, There Is No Evil.

He was detained in Iran in July 2022 and released the following year after the first wave of nationwide protests that began in September 2022 subsided.

Rasoulof’s latest sentence is the harshest yet handed out to the director. In 2010, he was sentenced to six years in prison, later reduced to one year, after an accusation of filming without the correct permit. In 2017, he was in effect banned from leaving the country after his passport was confiscated on his return to Iran.

Dissidents who feel in danger from authorities in the Islamic republic have been known to seek to cross to Europe via the mountainous land border with Turkey.

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