Mohammad Rasoulof Flees Iran After Prison Sentence, and Ahead of Cannes Premiere SuperNayr

Mohammad Rasoulof has fled Iran less than a week after his home country sentenced him to eight years in prison and flogging. The Iranian filmmaker, who won the Golden Bear at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival for “There Is No Evil,” has a film in competition at Cannes this year for the first time: “The Seed of the Sacred Fig.” It’s set to premiere next week toward the end of the festival, with the director’s attendance still unknown. The film, made in secret, was added to the lineup last month. Rasoulof’s fleeing raises the question of whether he will actually be able to attend the festival after all.

In a press statement issued from an undisclosed location, Rasoulof described the repression of his team in Iran while asking the international film community for “effective support.” See the full statement, dated May 12, below.

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In addition to the eight-year prison sentence and flogging, Rasoulof was also charged a fine and with confiscation of his property by Iran’s Revolutionary Court. Rasoulof has been banned from leaving Iran since 2017. He served jail time from July 2022 to February 2023 and was released early due to general amnesty for thousands of prisoners in Iran following widespread protests. Rasoulof was vocal in protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, killed while incarcerated for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly, and the Abadan building collapse that killed more than 40 people. Both incidents, protesters alleged, showcased government corruption and a lack of proper response on the part of Iran’s theocracy. Shortly after his release from prison, Rasoulof, 51, was notified there was a new case opened against him, this time regarding “There Is No Evil” and Rasoulof’s work as a dissident filmmaker.

“The Seed of the Sacred Fig” centers on a judge, up against Iran’s Revolutionary Court amid nationwide protests, who succumbs to paranoia after losing his gun. Rasoulof’s films “Goodbye” (2011), “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” (2013), and “A Man Of Integrity” (2017) have all screened at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section.

Mohammad Rasoulof’s 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. 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.

Of course, I strongly object to the unjust recent ruling against me that forces me into exile. However, the judicial system of the Islamic Republic has issued so many cruel and strange decisions that I do not feel it is my place to complain about my sentence. 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.

Before the Islamic Republic’s intelligence services were informed about my film’s production, a number of the actors managed to leave Iran. 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. They raided the office of the cinematographer, and all his work equipment was taken away. They also prevented the film’s sound engineer from traveling 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.

Despite the vast limitations I and my colleagues and friends faced while making the film, I 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. I have no doubt that restricting and suppressing freedom of expression cannot be justified even if it becomes a spur for creativity, but when there is no way, a way must be made.

The world’s cinema community must ensure effective support for the makers of such films. Freedom of speech should be defended, loudly and clearly. People who courageously and selflessly confront censorship instead of supporting it are reassured of the importance of their actions by the support of international film organizations. As I know from personal experience, it can be an invaluable help for them to continue their vital work.

Many people helped to make this film. My thoughts are with all of them, and I fear for their safety and well-being.

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