Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof has faced harassment and intimidation for the last two years, following on from a one-year prison sentence handed down in September 2017. Authorities also banned him from joining political parties or campaigns, and from leaving the country and making films.
Rasoulof says the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agency handed down the sentence in connection with his filmmaking — in particular his last three films: Un Certain Regard, which tells the story of a lawyer who wants to leave Iran, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, about the “chain murders” that took place in Iran in the 1990s, and A Man of Integrity (Lerd), a portrait of corruption and bureaucracy in Iran.
Iranian film directors and festival organizers including Mehdi Karampour, Abdolreza Kahani, Reza Darmishian, Rasoul Sadreameli, and Naser Safarian have publicly condemned the sentence.
Prior to this, in March 2010, Rasoulof and fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi were convicted of “colluding against national security,” taking part in illegal gatherings and “propaganda against the regime” and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. They appealed and their sentences were reduced to one year, but neither were taken to prison. Panahi has also been banned from traveling or making films.
IranWire spoke to Mohammad Rasoulof about the harassment and intimidation he has faced over the last two years.
Two years ago, Iranian authorities seized your passport at the airport. What did they say to you at the time?
They did not provide any explanation. They kept me for two hours and were not sure if they were just going to seize my passport, or whether they were going to arrest me too. The ordeal began at 11pm and I was kept at the airport until around 1:30am, when they finally spoke with their supervisor, who told them what to do with me. Then they took my passport, checked my laptop and camera and told me I could go. A few days later I was summoned to the Culture and Media Court for questioning. I don’t remember the exact branch number of the first court I went to because later it moved.
What happened at the prosecutor’s office?
I remember I went to a building in Arg Square [in Tehran] first. When I entered, there was a woman eating her breakfast who asked me angrily: “What do you want here?” I told her I had been summoned for an 8am appointment. She told me there was construction work going on and the court was moving so they would call me again. This was my first session, but the situation continued for the next few months. I had no idea where to go. Finally they called me, and the interrogations began. During this time, the Culture and Media court was moved to Motahari Street, where I had my first meeting with Mr. Sadatmehr, the prosecutor for the court’s Branch 12.
You have been interrogated several times over the last two years. How have you been treated by authorities in general?
I don’t remember the exact number, but I can say I was interrogated by Mr. Sadatmehr more than 10 times. He was often very angry and violent and treated me inhumanely. We had a few challenging times, including the first time we met. I sat in front of him and crossed my legs as I usually did. He looked at me and said, “Sit correctly! This is court.” I replied, “You are not polite” and stopped talking to him. He was asking me questions, but I told him I won’t reply when being spoken to in this manner. Shortly after, he apologized for his tone. I thanked him and said, now we can talk. However, the impolite tone and disrespectful behavior never stopped. In all those sessions a Revolutionary Guards officer was also present.
In other interviews, you have said that your case is in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agency. When did you find out about this?
During the first interrogation session, they [the agents] introduced themselves. They said they worked for the Owj Arts and Media Organization and were employed by the Guards. They said they didn’t care for the [government’s] intelligence ministry since its agents were too nice to me. They complained that the ministry should have imprisoned me after issuing a sentence against me in 2010.
So the agents clearly stated that they worked with the Owj Organization?
Yes, they proudly said that they determined who can or can’t make movies. They talked in detail about this in a four-and-a-half hour meeting. There were three Revolutionary Guards officers in that meeting.
Did these sessions take place at the Media and Culture Court?
No. The meetings started two to three months after they seized my passport, and took place in a building located on Mahnaz Street. There was a vetting procedure that took place at the entrance gate that led to a military-like compound — it was like the transport authority checks you see at airports.
The interrogation started at 9am and lasted until 1:30pm. I was not blindfolded and I could see all three men. One of them was asking the questions, the other was taking notes, and the third was just observing. They tried to create an intimidating environment. The note-taker, who was a young man, looked at me suddenly and then said disrespectfully, “Why do you use so many big words?” And I replied, “You should read a few books.” During the interrogation, the main interrogator warned him a few times over his behavior and said, “Rasoulof will make a movie out of all of this.” I remember when they brought me tea, one of them semi-jokingly said, “Don’t be afraid, drink your tea, it’s not poisoned.” Their default was to make sure I was scared of them. After this meeting, most of the interrogations took place in Branch 12 of the Media and Culture Court.
What did they say their problem with you was?
Their problem is not personal. They can’t tolerate anyone who does not think like them, they can’t let those people make movies. They have their own rhetoric, which I never understood. For example, they say, “your movies are dark.” I was arguing that we already have a ministry to deal with these kinds of affairs [the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance] and I’ve been questioned there enough for my movies. However, I answered their questions.
Another problem they had was with the movie A Man of Integrity [Lerd]. They insisted that with this film I supported Baha’is. They tried to make me change my mind and not defend the Baha’is, since they said they are blasphemers. I explained that my movie does not directly mention the Baha’is and it’s just about religous discrimination. My point is that any Iranian with any belief should be able to go to school in Iran. I told them my problem is with a regime that weighs people’s rights based on their beliefs. They could not stand any of the themes in the movie that dealt with religous discrimination.
What was the strangest thing you were asked during interrogations?
They asked why I used photos of [Ayatollahs] Khomeini and Khamenei so much in my movies. I said: “What can I do when wherever you go you stumble upon their photos? Just in this building and at the entrance to the interrogation room, I’ve seen so many photos of them.” Then I asked, “Do you want me to remove their photos from the movies?”
You needed a permit to make Lerd. Have you also tried to get the film shown in Iranian movie theaters too?
Yes, I did a lot to get the film production permits for Lerd, and finally I was successful. I also did my best to get the movie to theaters. During the Fajr Film festival, I told the authorities I wanted to show my movies in theaters in the country and I wouldn’t be sending it to any foreign film festivals whatsoever. But they denied that my movie even existed. They said the movie was so low quality that they couldn’t even show it in the festival. The festival director at the time was interviewed on national TV and said there were only two movies the censor was struggling with, and my movie was not one of them. I texted him and asked, “How can you lie so easily? They would not even say my movie’s name. So how could I expect them to show it?
During interrogations, did they ever suggest that you work for them?
Not during the interrogations, but Judge Iman Afshari of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court asked me, “Why don’t I make a movie about the Holocaust?” I said I had my own priorities and want to take care of them first. I said I would make movies about things and subjects that I know about.
Some people who have been critical of your work say you deliberately choose controversial topics for your movies. How do you respond to this?
What’s the problem? If my topics and subjects scare some people off, is that my problem or theirs? They want me to surrender like they do and keep my mouth shut. I see it as my duty to dig deep and discover new layers. I like to pay attention to reasons rather than consequences. I want to criticize the system that damaged our country so much. I don’t care who is in power — the Islamic Republic, the Pahlavi dynasty, or the next regime. My understanding of the status quo is chaos, mismanagement, hypocrisy, and the destruction of our country, religion and culture. It doesn’t matter who is responsible as long as the government can’t tolerate productive critics.
I don’t want to damage our national security, but in this country if you want to dig deep into any issue, you commit a political act. For example, if you want to make a movie about air pollution in Tehran, the first issue you need to address is the urban mismanagement of Tehran, then the production of low quality cars, then low quality petrol, then the legal loopholes, corruption, and so on. However, under this government, addressing any of the issues is a political act, whether you like it or not. If you want to make a non-political statement, you have to say, “The air is very polluted and people shouldn’t take their cars out.” A statement like that has been repeated for the last 40 years.