When Mohammad Rasoulof won the Golden Bear at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival, the Iranian director wasn’t there to accept his prize. Since 2017, when he returned to his home country after living abroad, Rasoulof has been banned from traveling internationally, and sentenced to a year in prison on propaganda charges.
However, the government has yet to imprison Rasoulof, permitting him to continue making the sort of brilliant, incendiary movies about life under Iranian autocracy that put him on the map. “There Is No Evil,” the final movie to screen in the Competition section of the Berlinale, turned out to be its most triumphant achievement — a defiant statement and galvanizing work of art. (At the festival, the filmmaker’s daughter Baran accepted the Golden Bear on his behalf, and brought him into a press conference via teleconference.)
“What I can observe from my own story,” Rasoulof said through a translator in a Skype interview from Tehran, two days before his festival win, “is that the satisfaction that you receive once you resist oppression and despotism can be higher than the price you have to pay.”
Like many Iranian directors, Rasoulof has clashed with authorities over the nature of his work many times. A decade ago, after the international reception of his film “The White Meadows,” the government charged him with a 20-year ban on filmmaking at the same that fellow Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi received the same sentence. (Panahi responded with the wry 2011 diary project “This Is Not a Film,” which was famously smuggled into Cannes on a hard drive buried in a pastry.)
In 2012, Rasoulof left the country with his wife and daughter, resettling in Germany. “I was so haunted by the fear of something happening to them, because we were facing so much pressure, so left together,” he said. After his 2013 feature “Manuscripts Don’t Burn,” a thriller about dissident writers tortured and killed by government operates, Rasoulof’s passport was confiscated when he returned to Iran for another project. He later recovered it, but it was once again confiscated when he came back in 2017 in the midst of the Green Movement protests.
He’s been there ever since, but the latest challenges have only toughened his resolve, and the Golden Bear win has validated that commitment. In early September 2017, Rasoulof attended the Telluride Film Festival with his drama “A Man of Integrity” and teared up during a public conversation about his inability to return home. Now he’s there, and while his wife and daughter remain in Europe, they are able to visit him, which was how Baran managed to make her acting debut in the movie’s closing passage. “At least what is left for me is the satisfaction of not having submitted to despotism,” Rasolouf said.
That mentality extends to “There Is No Evil,” by far the most sophisticated and powerful achievement from one of the country’s best working directors. The anthology film unfolds across four stories, each of which involves men faced with execution orders. The first passage revolves around a family man who follows orders, as he internalizes the emotional turmoil of his profession, but the other three passages complicate the equation: In one, a young military man engages in a daring escape instead of pulling the trigger, while the two closing passages involve flights to the countryside.
Viewers familiar with Rasoulof’s previous outings will find some measure of surprise in the different outcomes, and he said he embraced the opportunity to strike a different tone. “Until now, all my films had dealt with the dark side,” he said, “with the darkness of people who either submit to oppression or — if they resist — they fail, and they have a feeling of loss because of their resistance.”
This time, he wanted to celebrate the stakes of pushing back, “to turn my camera to the light side and to show that, although because of the act of resistance and refusing to take part in your repression you may have a price to pay, you may be harmed, but your life can still be joyful. This light was something that I really decided to put at the heart of my stories.”
Rasoulof was first inspired to make the movie after spotting one of the government agents who interrogated him leaving the bank. That inspired the film’s first passage, with a character trapped by his sense of duty. “He seems to have a happy, well-off city life in which he can have whatever he dreams of — his comfort, his family, all the benefits of a city life,” Rasoulof said. “But his world is completely locked and small, and he doesn’t have the benefit that his life seems to give him.”
“There Is No Evil” also deals with the impact of Iran’s required military service, which Rasoulof himself managed to dodge. He chuckled when thinking back on it. “This was something I really had a hard time with since I was young,” he said. “There was one period of time in which you could buy your exemption. This was when the country was in a time of peace. You could pay a toll and be exempted from national service, and that’s what I did.”
While “There Is No Evil” begins in the familiar backdrop of Tehran, it eventually travels to more isolated settings, providing a unique window into the country’s diverse geography. The second half of the movie takes place in the countryside. “People who refuse to obey oppression and stand for their opinion are naturally marginalized,” Rasoulof said. “At some point they have to withdraw from social standards and distance themselves from city life.” He discovered when he traveled to the northern Iran for the penultimate passage, which involves a soldier who returns to propose to his girlfriend, that the local mood matched his subject. “I found it very inspiring when I went there that people were very engaged in political struggles,” he said.
For the closing passage, Rasoulof ventured to an even more remote location, to tell the story of an ailing man who confronts his niece (the filmmaker’s daughter) about the military obligations that he escaped. The climactic moments unfold against golden fields and expansive rocky scenery. “I wanted vast landscapes, these places that were more like the desert, for very wide angles and uncluttered large spaces,” he said. “This man doesn’t have the attributes of a successful city life, but what he has is his personal freedom and personal joy. His life is filled with the satisfaction of being true to himself.”
Rasoulof found financial support for “There Is No Evil,” which has yet to secure U.S. distribution, from Germany and the Czech Republic. The production budget supported his ability to shoot on location as well as on the set of an abandoned building for the second installment. His producers circumnavigated the government ban on Rasoulof’s filmmaking by submitting requests to shoot four short films throughout the country, and didn’t include his name on the paperwork.
Rasoulof bemoaned the limitations of the Iranian film industry, which supported commercial comedies above all else. “These are extremely low-quality mediocre comedies and they are very popular,” he said, noting that the government also financed propaganda films. “There is so much money injected into this part of the industry that they don’t have any box office concerns because the government wants them to exist,” he said. “There are totally financed by military and paramilitary services specifically aimed at building propaganda films.”
Meanwhile, his own movies never secure official distribution in the country, though he said they do find audiences through film clubs and underground festivals. He acknowledged peers like Panahi and two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, who works abroad. “And there are many more less famous very active filmmakers trying to keep this vein of independent cinema alive,” Rasoulof said.
He added that he had found sufficient collaborators to keep his projects in flux. “Although my situation is more and more difficult, I find it easier and easier to make my films,” he said. “I have to struggle less to find collaborators. Once I gathered a team around the movie, I realized that the mutual understanding happens earlier and earlier. It’s easier to find people with which I have common vision.” His ability to finish “There Is No Evil” and get it into competition in Berlin left him in an optimistic mindset. “This brings me hope,” he said. “But the more hope you have, the more situation gets tense and difficult around you.”
Rasoulof’s Golden Bear win arrives as the world confronts fears of a global pandemic with the spread of the coronavirus. The disease has been especially potent in Iran, which has the highest mortality rate in the world and faced backlash for not taking proper measures to contain the outbreak. “The main concern now is how politicians are using and abusing this subject,” Rasoulof said. “There have been so many lies and distortion of truth that now people are living in this permanent state of mistrust. Of course there is concern but also a difficulty in seeing how the government confronts this situation. This kind of crisis can happen anywhere but in Iran everything becomes a matter of political manipulation and lies without facing the phenomenon itself.”
Coincidentally, the filmmaker said he has been paying daily visits to the hospital in Tehran while his mother undergoes surgery for an unrelated ailment. “I was very touched to see the solidarity between people, how people take care of each other,” he said. “It was very beautiful to see that in spite of all the difficulties, there is still this warmth and concern and this generosity between people.”
As for Rasoulof’s own future, the Golden Bear win raises even more questions about how the government will react to his ongoing filmmaking career. “To be honest, there is nothing you can predict,” he said. “My only resolution is to take advantage of this period, to not lose my energy to keep working just because of this situation. I do not want to waste my time.”