Iranian Film Directors Are Facing Fight or Flight Amid Turmoil

The wave of protests sparked across Iran by the death of Mahsa Amini by Iranian morality police in September came amid a banner year for Iranian cinema. 

But as 2023 kicks off, more than 500 people who have protested her death and called for justice have been killed while prominent members of the Iranian film industry were either arrested, put on trial or banned from making movies. The result being that the country’s cinematic community has largely ground to a halt. 

Which raises the question: unless something changes, how many films actually shot in Iran will be surfacing on the international festival circuit going forward?  

In 2022, Iran-based directors landed slots in all major international film festivals and won major awards. Revered auteur Jafar Panahi took the Venice Special Jury Prize for “No Bears” and Houman Seyyedi’s tragicomedy “World War III,” which was Iran’s candidate for the international Oscar, scooped two statuettes on the Lido. 

But 2023 is kicking off with only films by Iranian diaspora directors launching on the fest circuit. Case in point: native New Yorker Maryam Keshavarz’s “The Persian Version,” which bowed at Sundance. 

And the widening divide between Iran’s expat directors and Iranian filmmakers living in the country is stark at the Berlinale. 

Berlin’s Panorama section, which is titled “Films as Tools of Resistance,” is opening with Paris-based Sepideh Farsi’s feature “The Siren” which provides a timely take on the Iran-Iraq war. Incidentally, the section also features a doc by Indian director Sreemoyee Singh titled “And, Towards Happy Alleys,” which is about Panahi, who was recently released from Tehran’s Evin penitentiary after spending seven months behind bars on charges of “anti-government propaganda.”   

But the only film in this year’s Berlin selection that is by an Iran-based director is Negin Ahmadi’s doc “Dream’s Gate” which depicts an all-female Kurdish militia in Northern Syria.  

Berlin’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian says this year he actually received more submissions from Iran than ever before. But the fest’s selection committee was leery of Iranian films, many of which came from companies affiliated with the government. Why? “Because for them it’s a statement saying: ‘OK, this is not true what people abroad are saying about us,’” he said.  

Chatrian added that “at times films [from Iran] that from the outside look independent are not fully independent,” so they can still be seen as a form of government propaganda. 

In solidarity with the protests sparked by Amini’s death, the Berlinale has banned Iranian government film industry entities such as the Farabi Cinema Foundation, Iran’s national film promotion outfit which has been attending Berlin’s European Film Market with a stand for years.  

And on Feb. 18 there will be an event on the Berlinale Palast red carpet to shine a spotlight on the fest’s position against Iran’s repressive regime.  

Berlin’s executive director Mariëtte Rissenbeek pointed out that it’s bound to be more difficult these days for filmmakers in Iran, most of whom are anti-government, to make films. “They are for freedom of expression, which is exactly what the Iranian state is trying to fight right now,” she said. 

That, of course, is indeed the case.  

“Iranian cinema is now under attack in Iran,” noted “World War III” helmer Seyyedi, in an email interview from Tehran. “As a middle-aged man who is deeply involved with the present problems, I have no idea if I will really be able to start making another movie in future. We will have to wait and see what happens.” 

According to Mohammad Attebbai, head of Tehran-based sales company Iranian Independents, at the moment “Iran’s nearly 50% inflation and its severe censorship codes dissuade anyone from investing in a movie.” 

Attebbai added, “There are lots of filmmakers who, like many others in the country, believe it is impossible to keep living in Iran and are trying to immigrate.  

“They simply cannot tolerate the situation any longer, with censorship getting much worse and film production slowing down dramatically,” he said.  

Most artists at present are banned from travel outside Iran.   

Significantly, two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, Iran’s best-known director, is currently working on his new film in Los Angeles and Europe. Farhadi was at the Zurich Film Festival when protests following the death of Amini erupted. He voiced support for the protests and has returned to Iran since. 

As an Iranian diaspora director, Paris-based Farsi said she now feels a greater responsibility “to carry on the flag of making films that are relevant and have to do with Iran, though maybe not directly.”  

“I don’t know how ‘The Siren’ will travel,” she pointed out. “But for sure I would really love people in Iran to see it. 

“The end of the film has hope, and I really would like them to feel it as glow of sun for the near future of Iran. Because I’m really hoping that we will reach a victory soon.” 

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