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Iranian Filmmakers Threatened By Authorities After Backing Anti-Government Protests

Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi, Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, and Iranian actor Mehdi Bajestani pose during a photo call for the film Holy Spider at Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2022. Ebrahimi took home the Best Actress award for her role.

Scores of Iranian filmmakers and artists who penned an open letter in support of anti-government protesters have been threatened by authorities, with some rescinding their signatures.

The May 29 open letter came as residents of Iran’s southwestern city of Abadan staged rallies over the collapse of a 10-story building that killed at least 39 people.

Authorities blamed the May 23 collapse on poor safety and local corruption. But protesters in Abadan and other Iranian cities have put the blame on government negligence and endemic corruption. Many demonstrators have directed their anger at Iran’s clerical regime.

The government has launched a crackdown to quell the demonstrations. Authorities have disrupted the Internet and riot police have used tear gas and fired warning shots to disperse protesters on the streets.

The open letter issued by the Iranian filmmakers and artists had called “on all those who have become agents of repression in the military units to lay down their arms and return to the nation’s embrace.” It added that “public outrage over corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression” had prompted the “wave of popular protests.”

The statement was signed by prominent figures, including award-winning filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasulof as well as acclaimed feminist film director Tahmineh Milani.

Since issuing the letter, the signatories have been publicly threatened by authorities. Some also appear to have been pressured into withdrawing their signatures from the statement.

‘State Of Freedom Of Expression’

Iran’s Culture Minister Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili on May 30 warned that “those who want to stand against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the guardians of Iran’s security with worthless statements and delusionary remarks” will face action.

An opinion piece in the state-run Cinema Press warned that the signatories could face six months to three years in jail for signing the “strange and irrational” statement.

“I believe it would be appropriate for those who signed the statement without having read it or those who read it but were not being aware of its anti-security nature to withdraw their signature,” added the piece that was written by an “informed source.”

In an Instagram post on May 30, Rasulof said authorities had warned the signatories that they could be arrested or banned from working in Iran.

"They have frightened some of the signatories by [threatening] to arrest them and told some that they can no longer work,” he added. “This is the state of freedom of expression in the Islamic Republic. They want to resort to militarism to silence filmmakers who oppose violence.”

A signatory of the letter contacted by RFE/RL refused to comment, citing “intense” state pressure.

The IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency claimed that a significant number of the signatories had not been aware of its content and that nearly half had rescinded their signatures.

Other state-controlled media outlets quoted several of the signatories suggesting that they opposed the contents of the statement.

Pressure, Censorship

Despite attempts by authorities to undermine the open letter, another 70 Iranian filmmakers and artists added their signatures to the statement on June 1. They included the internationally known actress Taraneh Alidoosti and veteran film director Massoud Kimiaei.

The move appeared to be a direct challenge to authorities.

Last month, the homes of around a dozen filmmakers were raided and two were arrested on unknown charges. The two were later released on bail amid reports that they had been banned from leaving the country.

The reason for the latest crackdown is not clear. But it comes amid rising public anger at Iranian authorities over soaring inflation, high youth unemployment, and rising poverty.

Filmmakers working in Iran are often subjected to state pressure and strict censorship rules. Yet, they still manage to produce films that are often awarded at international film festivals while being banned inside the country.

Authorities have in the past sentenced Panahi and Rasulof to prison while also banning them from leaving the country.

In a 2019 interview with RFE/RL, Rasulof said Iranian authorities want filmmakers to act as propaganda agents for the clerical establishment and echo state-sanctioned narratives.