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Mohammad Rasoulof, the filmmaker who fled Iran: “The Islamic Republic has taken all Iranians hostage” | Culture

by News Room
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The appearance of the Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof (Shiraz, 52 years old) in Cannes, where he has been for several days, is causing waves of solidarity, admiration and even a certain devotion. He fled his country just three weeks ago, as soon as a sentence was confirmed that sentenced him to eight years in prison, whippings and the confiscation of his properties for the crime of “collusion with the intention of committing crimes against the security of the country”, Rasoulof appears smiling at the press conference, accompanied by the two actresses who play the daughters in his film, The seed of the sacred fig, another of his approaches to the demon that nests in the regime of his country by devouring the souls of the people. His drama has achieved applause in the different sessions, and it seems reasonable that it enters the competition list: the film has an impeccable composition, which borders on the incredible when Rasoulof tells how he made it.

For the filmmaker, who has been in prison several times, who has spent time under house arrest (when he promoted the premiere of his previous film for the Spanish press in the summer of 2021, The lives of others, Golden Bear in Berlin, answered video calls from a room in his house, which he could not leave), Europe is a liberation and a farewell. That is why he began the meeting by remembering those who were not able to accompany him in the French competition: “The actors (the couple that plays the married couple are detained in Tehran, and that is why Rasoulof carried their photos on the red carpet yesterday) gave me some interpretations incredible despite the difficulties; the director of photography, the sound engineer, the makeup team, the wardrobe team… They all have their passports withheld, they can’t leave. To all of them, my heart goes out to you. And also many thanks to those who helped me from the outside, such as the composer or the editor Andrew Bird: I left the entire film in their hands.” Rasoulof acknowledges that being able to reunite with his daughter, actress Baran Rasoulof, has also calmed his spirit.

The seed of the sacred fig follows the thread that has been uniting Rasoulof’s filmography for years: the impact on specific individuals, “in how the devil inhabits common places.” For this reason, he points out: “I reflect on how people justify their behaviors. I like to focus on that psychological part, on how you end up being a slave to the system. Even the names I baptize my characters with are born from real people.” The plot takes place in 2022, when a family joyfully receives the father’s job promotion, appointed judicial investigator, a prelude to the possibility of being a judge. His wife begins to think about a bigger house, her two teenage daughters, about having a room for each one. But the wave of protests that arose from the death of the young Masha Amini, beaten and arrested for wearing the veil incorrectly, breaks out and the three women begin to question what is happening around her. The spiral of violence even reaches their home through the brutal injuries suffered by a friend of the girls. Meanwhile, the head of the family is absorbed by the regime, enters a paranoid phase, and the house becomes a pressure cooker. The daughters’ question weighs on him: what does the father do every day when he leaves the house? Why doesn’t he answer his cell phone? In addition, Rasoulof uses the girls’ phones to show videos of the demonstrations and the repression carried out by the Iranian government.

Actresses Mahsa Rostami (right) and Setareh Maleki (left) show photos of the actors who play their parents, Missagh Zareh and Soheila Golestani, alongside director Mohammad Rasoulof, Saturday morning in Cannes.ANDRE PAIN (EFE)

“The idea was born,” says the filmmaker, “after years of my personal confrontation with the secret services. All the characters are born from real situations, the secret services will recognize those corridors of the revolutionary courts.” He experienced the 2022 riots in prison, where he chatted with another great of Iranian cinema, Jafar Panahi, also imprisoned. “I spoke with him about the echoes of what reached us from outside. Even political prisoners began to enter. One day one of the regime’s monsters gave me a pen, and he told me that every day he entered prison and saw the door close, he remembered his sons’ question about what he did there. And that’s where the script started.”

Rasoulof wanted to send a message of encouragement to the film community in his country: “The rebellion has been going on for years in Iranian cinema, and we have continued filming at any cost, without accepting censorship. Those fighters have all my respect. My message is ‘Don’t be intimidated by censorship’. Of course there is fear. We have to fight to dignify life in Iran. The new generations are doing it.” And he set a practical example so that the rest of the world would understand the complexity of what was shown: “The American public will not understand that seeing an actress, like those who appear in my film, without wearing a veil, is an act of bravery in itself.” .

Are you afraid of your future? “When I look at the past, it is sometimes difficult for me to recognize myself because I was overwhelmed by anger, anger overwhelmed me, when, for example, I could not finish one of my films because I went to prison. Let it be clear: the Islamic Republic is capable of doing anything anywhere. Use religion as a political weapon, and my films affect that indoctrination, about how the system enters your head and occupies it. The Islamic Republic is a dictatorship that has taken Iranians hostage. “I had to decide to run away to continue telling stories.”

The team of 'The Seed of the Sacred Fig', on Friday afternoon at the film's gala premiere.  Mohammad Rasoulof holds photographs of the two actors, Missagh Zareh and Soheila Golestani, who have not been able to leave Iran.
The team of ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’, on Friday afternoon at the film’s gala premiere. Mohammad Rasoulof holds photographs of the two actors, Missagh Zareh and Soheila Golestani, who have not been able to leave Iran.ANDRE PAIN (EFE)

Since January, Rasoulof’s life has been a constant increase of tension. “I had to endure enormous pressure on my back.” And he explains the filming: “When I was in the fourth week of filming, in March, finishing the film, they announced to me the sentence I could receive. I called my lawyers and we decided to appeal. In my favor was that since it was the new year in Iran, the process would take a month. I ended up running the movie, I even gave instructions to finish it in case they stopped me; The material began to leave secretly. I knew that when the regime saw the film, new charges would be added to my sentence. We appealed the sentence, there was no luck and they announced to us that in a week the sentence would be carried out. I learned that the secret services had begun to interrogate members of the team. I only had two hours to decide: did I want to go to prison or should I leave the country I love and join the Iranian cultural exile? I chose the second, I said goodbye to my plants, it is still difficult for me to talk about this, I looked from the window of my house at the mountains and the walls of the prison, because they could be seen from there, and I said goodbye.

After asking a friend for cash, he got rid of all his electronic devices so he wouldn’t be tracked. “The good thing about prison is that I met very different people, and I made contacts that were very useful to me in my escape. They took me on foot to a country I cannot name, and I spent one day in a village near the border from which I contacted the German consulate. Since I have lived there for seven years, my fingerprints are registered in Germany, they could confirm my identity. The day after arriving in Germany I made it public.” The journey to freedom was made in 28 days.

To finish, Rasoulof allowed himself a joke: “So that they wouldn’t find me, I went without a cell phone, like gangsters, now my team and I are the gangsters of the cinema. “It would have been easier to traffic cocaine than to make films.” And to the new generations he advised: “Do not allow censorship to intimidate you. They only have one weapon, terror. Don’t let the authorities intimidate you. Believe in your freedom.”

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