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Editorial: Croisette casualties

Rasoulof was the latest artist targeted in a widening crackdown on all dissent in the Islamic Republic following years of mass protests, including over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini.

Editorial: Croisette casualties

Cannes Award

NEW DELHI: In the run up to the Cannes Film Festival, which opens today, an award-winning Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoul of was sentenced to lashes and eight years in prison, ahead of his planned trip to the French Riviera for the premiere of his new film, The Seed of the Sacred Fig. Rasoulof had gained widespread acclaim with his film There Is No Evil, which tells four stories centred on the use of capital punishment in Iran. Although he won the Golden Bear prize at Berlin in 2020, he couldn’t accept the award owing to a travel ban imposed on him by Iranian authorities. Shortly after receiving the award, he was sentenced to a year in prison for three films he made that authorities found to be “propaganda against the system.”

Rasoulof was the latest artist targeted in a widening crackdown on all dissent in the Islamic Republic following years of mass protests, including over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini. Fellow filmmaker Saeed Roustayi and his producer similarly faced legal action last year after traveling to Cannes to show Leila’s Brothers. Iran’s Shiite theocracy has railed against Western-embraced artists as a part of a “soft war” against its policies. Yet Iran has become known on the global film circuit for daring, thought-provoking movies outlining the challenges of life in the Islamic Republic.

In fact, at the Cannes Fest 2022, Holy Spider, a Persian crime thriller, was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or. The film was based on the true story of a serial killer who targeted street prostitutes and killed 16 women from 2000 to 2001 in Mashhad, Iran. Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who depicted a fictional female journalist investigating the crimes, won the Best Actress Award for her performance. But her celebration was short-lived as Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance issued a statement condemning the Cannes festival for awarding the film, comparing it to The Satanic Verses. Ebrahimi received nothing less than 200 threats since the festival honour.

The indignities heaped upon Rasoulof and Ebrahimi are emblematic of the hardships faced by creators, who choose to deal with subject matter that could be viewed as anti-establishment in authoritarian regimes. Rasoulof is preceded by the likes of Jafar Panahi, a prize winner at Cannes for his 1995 debut The White Balloon. Panahi had the distinction of being barred from leaving Iran since 2010 after being found guilty of “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security, and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

In 2011, the gusty director managed to smuggle a copy of This is Not a Film, his documentary detailing his house arrest into Cannes through a USB flash drive, concealed inside a cake. Hearteningly, last month he was allowed to leave Iran for the first time in 14 years. But it’s not just the Iranian auteurs who have been caught under the dragnet of such regimes. In 2018, Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, who was known for his liberal and LGBTQ-friendly views that opposed official conservative positions, was barred from leaving Moscow on account of politically-influenced criminal charges. Serebrennikov, whose film Leto (or Summer) had appeared in competition at the festival that year, spent around two years under house arrest in Russia since August 2017 on charges of corruption. This sobering realisation of the consequences of storytelling is essential — before we get swept up in the glamour and high jinks of the Croisette.

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