For Love of Iran, For Love of Home
by MARISA SITTHEEAMORN
It is no secret that censorship is a reality consuming the Iranian artistic and cultural landscapes. Artists, poets, filmmakers, and journalists have all fallen victim to the government’s strict regulations, which all too often, have resulted in prison sentences and bans on artistic practice. Perceived as a measure to maintain the stability of the country, the policies are set in place to try and prevent any counter-revolutionary or reformist movements, and simultaneously curb the spread of opposing beliefs.
Despite being one of many industries under strict government control, the filmmaking community has felt the ruling regime’s looming presence for decades. While censorship has come and gone in waves over the years, its severity has coincided with the political state of the country. Leading up to and during the war, films were banned and movie theatres were burned to the ground. Following the revolution, a set of policies were put in place to not only control the output of films produced domestically but also to control the incoming content from abroad. During his first year in power, the Islamic Republic’s new leader, Khomeini, banned 513 foreign films.
While many of the country’s artists and filmmakers practice their expression within the confines of the law, there are several who refuse to be silenced by the government’s restrictive policies. One of the first of his kind was Jafar Panahi, who has become an international icon known for his many boundary-breaking films and run-ins with the law. His films have landed him multiple arrests, imprisonment, the disposal of his passport, as well as a 20-year ban on writing and directing films. In defiance of his ban, Panahi went on to create This Is Not A Film (2011), the clandestine documentary that was famously smuggled into Cannes through a birthday cake. Since then, he has continued to reject his ban with Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi (2015), and 3 Faces (2018) – which have all gone on to be embraced by film festivals and loyal audiences around the world.
While Panahi remains a poster face for defying censorship, other filmmakers have been fighting the same battle for years, just a little less directly under the limelight; at least until recently. Just last week, Mohammad Rasoulof made history as he took home the Golden Bear for Best Film at Berlinale with There Is No Evil (2020). The film follows four men who are forced to question their individual freedoms and moral strength as they face the death penalty in a tyrannical society. Leading up to the festival, Rasoulof’s name plastered headlines, therefore highlighting his inability to leave Iran for the festival. Despite the recent international attention surrounding his government-imposed restrictions, the filmmaker’s clashes with the regime have been a drawn-out battle.
In 2010, Rasoulof and Panahi were detained together while working on a project surrounding the 2009 uprisings during the presidential elections in Iran. With an original conviction of six years in prison, both sentences were reduced to one year. Neither terms have been served, however, Panahi spent several years under house arrest while Rasoulof was held in solitary confinement for eight days.
In continued resistance, Rasoulof spearheaded his next project, A Man of Integrity (2017), a film about corruption and injustice in a small Iranian village. The film won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes and became an example of how a film could communicate the regime’s success in silencing independent voices. Upon returning to Iran, the authorities confiscated his passport, sentencing him to yet another year in prison backed by charges of propaganda against the state.
With piling prison sentences, Rasoulof refused to stop his craft and directed his next film. This was the making behind his newest cinematic masterpiece, There Is No Evil. In addition to winning the Golden Bear at Berlinale, the film received a 15-minute standing ovation at its world premiere on the closing night of the festival. While his absence was felt, it was certainly not ignored. Cast and crew mates flashed his photo on their smartphones to photographers along the red carpet and mentioned his courage with every opportunity they had to address a crowd. Just three days after his win, however, the creative mastermind was summoned to serve his year-long prison sentence.
As Mohammad Rasoulof joins Panahi in the public eye for their fighting passion for freedom of voice, there are many others, such as Keywan Karimi, who continue to suffer the consequences of the regimes tight-grip on the industry. And while some filmmakers like Bahman Ghobadi, flee the country to work and explore risky themes, it is home that draws the so-called censorship perpetrators back to Iran every single time. “This is my home,” Rasoulof says, “I belong here.”