What a difference a little bit of time and a new regime make… or do they? Earlier this year, Iran was mulling litigation over how it was portrayed in Ben Affleck’s Academy Award winner Argo, and it boycotted the 2012 Oscars in protest over the Innocence Of Muslims video that was made in the U.S. Now that a new government led by perceived political moderate Hassan Rouhani is in place, the Argo lawsuit has lost steam and Iran has entered Asghar Farhadi’s The Past as its Oscar candidate for 2013. Those and other recent moves had led some to wonder if a new era of tolerance for freedom of expression was afoot. But, in just the past day, it’s emerged that Manuscripts Don’t Burn director Mohammad Rasoulof had his passport confiscated on a recent return home to Iran, and is still blocked from leaving the country.
Does that mean that despite the possible thaw of relations between Iran and the rest of the free world, tolerance for freedom of expression at home hasn’t really budged? Folks I’ve spoken with agree that Iran’s reopening of the House of Cinema film guild in September, after a 20-month closure, gave rise to hope that banned filmmakers like Jafar Panahi might see their sentences eased. At the time, Deputy Culture Minister Hojatollah Ayoubi said, “When a cultural issue — like the one about the House of Cinema — becomes a political one, that is (because) the situation was not managed properly.” That makes this latest turn with Rasoulof even more “paradoxical” as one person put it to me today.
The submission of Farhadi’s The Past to the Oscar race even seemed to push against typical conservative mores. The choice wasn’t entirely unexpected — Farhadi’s A Separation won the Foreign Language prize in 2011 — but the movie was made in France with French coin and deals with moral issues and intimate relationships that might have once run afoul of state authorities. Instead, it reportedly rubbed some conservatives the wrong way, but only because they felt it wasn’t Iranian enough.
Even controversial attorney Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who in March told me she was investigating a possible lawsuit over Argo at the request of Iranian authorities, now tells me that given the new government’s “desire to reestablish relations with the U.S.,” it’s dubious “if they will want to continue with this… It’s a bit late now.” Although she was not familiar with the circumstances surrounding Rasoulof’s situation, she insisted, “Iran doesn’t have to answer to anyone” on issues of human rights.
Why is Rasoulof landlocked now? People close to the situation are refraining from commenting for fear of complicating matters. But it’s suspected that the subject of Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Rasoulof’s latest film which won a FIPRESCI prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard last May, could be a factor. It was described by the Toronto Film Festival as “an incendiary critique of the Iranian regime” that “tackles head-on the violent machinations of censorship in Iran.”
In 2010, Rasoulof was arrested for “propaganda against the regime” and received a six-year prison sentence, ultimately reduced to one, and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. The prison sentence has not been enforced and he has continued to travel, recently accompanying Manuscripts to Telluride and Toronto. He was expected at the Hamburg Film Festival last night and is due to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Festival on October 8th. In a statement, Nuremberg fest director Andrea Kuhn said, “We find it absolutely inacceptable that the Iranian authorities refuse to let him leave the country. He is being held against his will and he is being hindered to exercise his job as a director and filmmaker… This is a severe violation of freedom of expression and basic human rights.”
Rasoulof’s 2010 arrest came at the same time as The White Balloon helmer Panahi, who remains under a 20-year filmmaking ban and is not allowed to travel. As Rasoulof did with Manuscripts, Panahi continues to make films covertly. His last, Closed Curtain, won a Best Script Silver Bear in Berlin. But when his co-director, Kambozia Partovi, returned to Iran in February after accepting the prize on Panahi’s behalf, he too had his passport confiscated. Panahi’s previous movie, 2011′s This Is Not A Film, was smuggled into the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden inside a cake.
Panahi, Rasoulof and others have had support from film festivals and film academies around the world. Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux told me today, “Iranian cinema is one of the greatest in the world and the Cannes Film Festival is hoping that Iranian filmmakers will be free to make the films they want, and be able to show them in the big overseas festivals. That’s the case with Farhadi. It must also be the case for Rasoulof and Panahi.”