In July, Iran arrested three filmmakers for speaking out against police violence and the persecution of women in the country, including prominent directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. Now, a fourth veteran Iranian filmmaker is facing repercussions for speaking out, as “Subtraction” director Mani Haghighi told IndieWire that his passport was confiscated at the Tehran International Airport on Thursday while he was en route to the BFI London Film Festival. He was prevented from boarding his flight and returned home.
“I thought this was going to happen,” he said in a voice memo on Thursday shortly after he was informed of the decision. “It’s just their attempt to intimidate us. The more noise we make, the less successful that plan will be.”
A spokesperson for the BFI London Film Festival told IndieWire that the festival was aware of the situation. “We understand that no reason has been given to Mani Haghighi for the confiscation,” the spokesperson said. “The BFI London Film Festival supports Haghighi and all filmmakers in their freedom to make their films and present them around the world.” Earlier this week, the festival hosted “a moment of solidarity and reflection” to support “imprisoned Iranian filmmakers and the brave women of Iran who are challenging for their freedom.”
In early September, Haghighi attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere of “Subtraction,” the surreal story of a married couple in Tehran who come across their doppelgängers. This week, he planned to travel to London for the international premiere. At the airport on Thursday, he was told he could not leave the country. Though he has yet to be provided with a reason, Haghighi said that he suspects the decision is a direct response to an Instagram post protesting police violence around the country.
Violence initially escalated in the city after outcry over corruption related to the collapse of a building in the region. However, tension with the government has exacerbated much further since then, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody after she was arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely on September 13. The incident sparked nationwide protests to hijab laws, with many women around the country burning hijabs at public protests.
Those actions have gained international attention and a condemnation of police action against loose hijabs by the United Nations. On September 27, Haghighi posted an Instagram video in reaction to the government crackdown that has been viewed over 20 million times. That was why, Haghighi told IndieWire, he had no problem traveling to Toronto even though he had previously expressed solidarity with the protests in Abadan. “Shit hadn’t hit the fan yet,” he said.
In his Instagram post, Haghighi criticized the government for attempting to stifle protests. “I see contradiction and sophistry in this demand,” he said in Farsi. “It’s true that people should be subordinate to the rule of law, but only when lawmakers are themselves subordinate to the people.” Addressing the government directly, he added: “You, so proud of your pathetic masculinity, might want to listen to their protests, accept their demands, and look out for them as you’d look out for your own children, instead of letting them be assaulted with batons and bullets, and have their corpses delivered to their families who are then forced to bury them at night, in secret.”
As arrests accelerated over the summer, the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered an ominous speech that appeared to call for the harsh torture and interrogation methods that dominated the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. “The god of the 1980s is still the same god,” he said.
The acceleration of governmental backlash against public figures has been widespread. Earlier this week, soccer star Ali Daei had his passport revoked by Iranian authorities after he demanded on social media that the government “solve the problems of the Iranian people rather than using repression, violence, and arrests.” The passport was returned two days later after the decision gained media attention.
Others who faced similar repercussions for speaking out include singer Homayoun Sharjarian, his wife and actor Sahar Dolatshahi, and filmmaker Mehran Modiri. Informed of Haghighi’s conundrum, Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami said he wasn’t surprised. “It’s a very difficult situation right now,” he said. “The government has resorted to its intimidation tactics in the worst way.”
A reminder of the conditions in Iran arrived in the U.S. this past week with the New York Film Festival screening of Panahi’s “No Bears,” with actress Mina Kavani reading a statement from the incarcerated director. “We create works that are not commissioned,” Panahi said in his statement. “Therefore, those in power see us as criminals. Independent cinema reflects its own times. It draws inspiration from society. And cannot be indifferent to it. The history of Iranian cinema witnesses the constant and active presence of independent directors who have struggled to push back censorship and to ensure the survival of this art.”
Meanwhile, Iranian-born filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) has been posting constantly to her Instagram to raise awareness about the protests. “These beautiful girls need to be protected by your voice,” she wrote this week.
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Speaking to IndieWire about the arrests of Panahi and his peers in July, Haghighi explained his decision to speak out while in post-production for his new movie, despite the risks. “I’m just incredibly pissed off,” he said. “It’s time to do something.”
Haghighi is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker who has been making movies for over 20 years. His credits include 2016’s “A Dragon Arrives” and 2018’s “Pig,” both of which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. He also served as a co-writer on Asghar Farhadi’s “Fireworks Wednesday” and acted in his early hit “About Elly.”
In anticipation of potential travel issues, Haghighi recorded a video message that will run ahead of the three sold-out screenings for “Subtraction” scheduled for this weekend. “I’m very sorry I’m unable to be there with you tonight,” he said in the video, shared with IndieWire. “Perhaps the authorities thought that by keeping me here they could keep a closer eye on me, perhaps to threaten me and shut me up. Well, the very fact that I’m talking to you in this video right now undermines that plan.”
He described his situation as “an exile in reverse.” To that end, he added, he was galvanized by the protests around the country. “Being here in Tehran right now is one of the greatest joys of my life,” he said. “I cannot put into the words the joy and the honor of being able to witness firsthand this great moment in history. I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world right now. If this is a punishment for what I’ve done, then by all means, bring it on.”