Over the past week, reports have circulated that the Iranian government has arrested celebrated Iranian filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad.
The directors were apprehended for posting statements on social media which condemned government-sanctioned violence in response to protests in May in the southwestern city of Abadan.
Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported that they had been detained for urging Iranian security forces to not suppress protesters or use firearms against them during a wave of protests across Iran.
The protests were triggered after a 10-story building collapsed in Abadan, leaving at least 41 people dead and many more missing. The directors used the protest hashtag #put_your_gun_down.
A third arrest and international outcry
Iranian producer, cultural advocate and frequent collaborator to Mohammad Rasoulof, Kaveh Farnam, told Euronews that Rasoulof is being held in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
“We got the news from IRNA, Iran’s state news agency on Friday 8 July," he said.
"I was talking with him [Mohammad Rasoulof] about an hour beforehand. Through the news we found out of other arrests of other colleagues, including Mostafa Al-Ahmad."
A few days after the arrest of both directors, prominent Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was detained when he sought to inquire with the prosecutor’s office about his filmmaking colleagues.
More than 300 figures of the country’s film industry have signed a statement calling for their release.
The news of the arrests also reverberated in the film community, with several international film festivals, including Cannes, Venice and Locarno, releasing official statements condemning the arrests.
The Berlin Film Festival said it was “outraged to hear of the arrest”. Panahi and Rasoulof won the coveted Golden Bear respectively in 2015 for Taxi and 2020 for There is No Evil.
Festival directors Mariette Risenbeek and Carlo Chatrian added that the arrest is “another violation of freedom of expression and freedom of the arts".
Kaveh Farnam also told Euronews that the expression of solidarity from the international film community is the first step towards constructive and meaningful action.
“The first step is to have international awareness because, based on our experience, any time we keep anything in silence, they [the Iranian governement] can do anything they want in darkness. (…) Fortunately, many film festivals and many cinema magazines are supporting the freedom of these three good and intelligent and talented filmmakers. The next step is to try to convert this awareness to a sort of pressure to ask the governments and different communities who have any sort of political or human rights power to ask for the release of the filmmakers. And it’s not only the filmmakers – recently, there is a big wave of civil arrests in Iran and there should be a reason for this and they [the organizations] can put pressure on Iran to release all of them.”
This isn’t the first time Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof have had run-ins with the Iranian authorities.
Panahi was arrested in March 2010 and charged with propaganda against the regime, and both he and Rasoulof continued filmmaking, using covert resources, despite bans stating they were not allowed to continue their craft.
Reports during the pre-Berlinale in 2020 stated that Mohammad Rasoulof’s film There Is No Evil had to be covertly smuggled to be screened at the festival via USB stick. The film consists of four interconnected stories that centre on the death penalty, repression of personal freedom in Iran and the toll of violence on the human soul.
His daughter, Baran Rasoulof, was on hand to pick up the Golden Bear prize on his behalf, considering her father was not allowed by Iranian authorities to attend the festival.
Jafar Panahi’s recent film, No Bears, is expected to hit the festival circuit this fall, after the filmmaker won Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2018 for 3 Faces. The exposure on major film platforms would continue to expose the attacks on freedom of expression and shine a light on the plight of the directors that are currently detained.