Days after winning the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof could end up in prison over his work, which has been branded by Iranian judiciary officials as “propaganda against the state.”
But he refuses to back down.
“I do my best, and the effort is what makes one happy and satisfied, the feeling that you’ve been loyal to yourself and not a [tool] of the ruling repression," Rasoulof told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda in a recent telephone interview from Tehran.
“I don’t know what the future will bring, and I’m not worried about it,” said the 48-year-old filmmaker, whose most recent award came for his new drama There Is No Evil.
“What I know is that I’m not willing to make films at any price," he said. "I do my best to make movies that I like."
Iranian filmmakers face tough censorship rules. Those crossing officials' "red lines" face state pressure, and their films are not allowed to be screened in the Islamic republic.
Authorities have accused Rasoulof of painting a dark picture of Iranian society and provoking despair.
Rasoulof told RFE/RL in July that Iranian authorities want filmmakers to act as propaganda agents for the clerical establishment and repeat state-sanctioned narratives.
He has refused to do so, instead taking on sensitive issues including the death penalty, which is at the heart of There Is No Evil.
The film presents four interconnected stories of individuals -- from the executioner to family members of the victims.
Rasoulof was was unable to personally accept the 70th Berlin International Film Festival's Golden Bear award on February 29. He has been banned from leaving Iran since 2017, when his passport was confiscated on his return from the Cannes Film Festival, where his film A Man Of Integrity won a top prize.
Rasoulof told Radio Farda that the message of his drama is clear and simple: “The role of individuals in a tyrannical society with despotic leaders. We cannot attribute everything to the leaders when we ourselves become agents of tyranny.”
Three days later, after winning the top prize in Berlin, Rasoulof was summoned to serve a one-year prison sentence that was ordered last year over the contents of his films, the director's lawyer, Nasser Zarafshan, said.
Zarafshan told AFP on March 5 that he had advised his client not to turn himself in now due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran, which has left more than 100 people dead and infected more than 3,500.
Iran’s judiciary has said that 54,000 prisoners are being released temporarily to prevent the spread of the virus within the country’s frequently overcrowded prisons.
Rasoulof has not publicly commented on his recent summons to report to prison, which, according to his lawyer, came in a text message.
In an interview with Variety published on March 2, the filmmaker said he was informed via text message two months ago that an appeals court had confirmed his prison sentence.
“I am still checking my phone, still waiting for another text to inform me at what point this sentence is going to be executed,” Rasoulof said.
He also said that the travel ban he faces “very clearly exposes the intolerant and despotic nature of the Iranian government.”
Rasoulof said increased tensions between Iran and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump have resulted in a conservative backlash.
Trump withdrew the United States in 2018 from a nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers and subsequently reimposed tough sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
The United States assassinated the top commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Major General Qasem Soleimani, in an air strike on January 3, raising concerns of an escalating military confrontation between the longtime foes.
“Its impact on cinema is obvious,” Rasoulof said of the high-risk standoff.
“Very recently, at the Fajr Film Festival [in Tehran], half of the films presented there were financed entirely by the power, by the government. More specifically, [by] the military investment that is behind this fund," he added. "So the independent film community is getting smaller and smaller."
Amid the tensions, Iran's authorities have intensified their clampdown.
In November, at least 300 people were killed in a state crackdown on antiestablishment protests sparked by a sudden rise in the price of gasoline.
Rasoulof said filmmakers like him are being increasingly sidelined.
“Any independent filmmaker, even if they see themselves as being very subversive, they have no other choice but to work on projects that are financed by this military and security establishment.”
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Rasoulof said he was heartened by recent anti-government protests.
"It is unheard of," he said. "For the first time, there is a popular anger among the Iranian people that even the government cannot ignore."
Rasoulof and another prominent Iranian film director, Jafar Pahani, were detained in 2010.
Both were later sentenced to six years in prison over a documentary on the disputed 2009 presidential election and the mass protests that followed. Rasoulof’s sentence was reduced on appeal to one year in prison.
Panahi was also sentenced to prison but hasn’t begun serving his sentence. Authorities also banned Panahi from filmmaking for 20 years, although he has managed to make several films in Iran that have won accolades and top prizes at international film festivals.