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Iranian director's film travels as he's stuck at home


In September, Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof returned to Iran hoping to find a climate of appeasement after Rohani's election. Now he's forbidden to leave, just as his new film is making a splash on the international festival circuit.


Mohammad Rasoulof’s seat is empty once again.

After making the round of film festivals in London and Stockholm, it was at the Forum des Images – a film library and revival house in Paris – that the Iranian filmmaker’s absence was most recently remarked.

Rasoulof was not permitted to leave Iran to present his latest film, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” at its Paris screening on Monday, November 11.

The film, which sharply criticises the violence of the Iranian regime under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, premiered at Cannes in May as part of the A Certain Regard sidebar category.

After the festival, Rasoulof stayed in France. When he traveled to Iran in September, a few months after the election of Iran’s new, more moderate president, Hassan Rohani, he expected to stay only five days. But he has been there for nearly two months now, strictly monitored and forbidden from leaving the country.

Like many Iranian intellectuals and artists, Rasoulof hoped that Rohani’s election would translate into greater freedom of speech and a decisive break with the Ahmadinejad era.

But change has not come quickly.

The director’s working conditions have declined steadily over the past eight years. Arrested in 2010 along with another prominent Iranian filmmaker, Jafar Panahi, Rasoulof was initially handed a six-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and “plotting against national security”. The decision was appealed and the sentence reduced to one year, though Rasoulof has not yet been sent to prison.

Iran’s treatment of its intellectuals, especially its filmmakers, has often been contradictory. In 2010, eager to improve Iran’s image on the international stage, the country’s culture ministry decided to send Rasoulof to Cannes to present his film “Goodbye” – despite knowing that the writer/director had changed the film’s screenplay after it had gotten past the censors.

As he prepared for the trip to France, Iranian authorities confiscated all of Rasoulof’s prior footage as collateral, in order to ensure that he would return from France. The director was ultimately unable to leave Iran, because his visa did not arrive in time.

Making movies from the inside

So why did Rasoulof return to Iran for a visit?

According to his entourage, contacted by FRANCE 24, the filmmaker did not want to fight for an Iranian democracy from exile in Europe. Rather, the director has said he prefers to pursue his analysis of Iranian society by making movies from the inside.

Risk-taking has always been a part of Rasoulof’s work. His latest, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, was shot on the sly during the Ahmadinejad regime using a hidden camera, and two of the film’s actors, who lived in Iran at the time, were subsequently forced to leave.

Despite the strict surveillance he has been subject to over the past few months in Tehran, Rasoulof has not given up his passion. He is reportedly at work on his next film, in which he will question the concept of identity and whether or not it is linked to nationality.

Rasoulof’s work has, if anything, become bolder in its criticism of Iran. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” portrays an Iran plagued by censorship, persecution of intellectuals, summary executions and police harassing citizens.

The film won the international critics’ group (FIPRESCI) prize at Cannes in 2013 and was warmly received at its screening in Paris earlier this week.

Rasoulof may be stuck in Iran, but his work continues to cross borders.

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