‘Maybe They Will Come for All of Us’: Iranian Directors Fear for Safety After Major Filmmakers Arrested

The arrests of major Iranian directors are a microcosm of broader unrest across the country as the government accelerates its oppressive tactics.
Iranian director Jafar Panahi poses during a photocall for the film "Offside" at the 56th Film Festival Berlinale in Berlin, Germany, Friday, Feb. 17, 2006. (AP Photo/Hermann J. Knippertz)
Recently incarcerated filmmaker Jafar Panahi at the Berlinale in 2006

The plight of persecuted dissidents in Iran has become all too familiar, but now the mood has changed. Over the past week, reports circulated that the government arrested filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad for posting statements on social media decrying government-sanctioned violence in response to recent protests in the southwestern city of Abadan. A few days later, fellow director Jafar Panahi (“Taxi”) was arrested while visiting the prison to inquire about the conditions of the other men.

In the past, both Rasoulof and Panahi faced trumped-up charges for creating work critical of Iranian policies. However, these detainments are a microcosm of broader unrest now echoing across Iran and an acceleration of aggressive tactics by the country’s leadership. The result has left Iran’s film community and its international allies in a state of anger, fear, and uncertainty about how to proceed.

Rasoulof and Al-Ahmad, an occasional documentary filmmaker and outspoken activist, were arrested on Friday after they posted a letter online signed by more than 70 members of the Iranian film community calling for an end to police violence in the Abadan, where the collapse of a building in May yielded massive protests. Using the hashtag “#put_your_gun_down,” the letter called “on all people who have become the oppressors in military units to put down their weapons and embrace the nation.”

Now, other filmmakers who signed the petition are wondering if they’re next on the list. “Maybe they will come for all of us one by one,” the director of a recent festival hit wrote IndieWire via the secure messaging app Telegram this week. “We don’t know.”

Some experts with knowledge of the situation said that outcome was unlikely given the specificity of the charges against the incarcerated men. “I don’t think they can arrest all the filmmakers,” said Jamsheed Akrami, a scholar of Iranian cinema based in New York. “They would probably like to do that and they have the power, but they have so many other problems they have to deal with.”

He added that the current situation for the three detainees was fluid. “We still don’t know if this is just a show on the part of the government and they’ll give up after a week or two or not,” he said. “It all depends on the political volatility in the country.” Lawyers representing the filmmakers declined comment until more information was available; the initial statement posted to Rasoulof’s Instagram page remains up and can be seen below.

In the past, both Panahi and Rasoulof received prison sentences and bans on filmmaking. Neither served prison time but were prohibited from leaving the country, an outcome that some saw as the government’s attempt to exert control over the men. Nevertheless, they continued to make movies with covert resources that played at major festivals and won awards. Rasoulof’s 2020 anthology film “There Is No Evil,” a critical take on the country’s execution policies, won the top prize at Berlinale that year. Shortly afterward, Rasoulof received a one-year sentence for three films deemed “propaganda against the system.”

Rasoulof has allegedly been detained in order serve that one-year sentence, in addition to his role in organizing the statement that circulated on social media last week. Panahi, meanwhile, was arrested for prison charges brought against him in 2010. According to Panahi’s wife Tahere Saeedi in a recent BBC interview, the couple had recently returned from vacation and visited Ervin Prison, where Rasoulof is being held, to inquire about having him released. Once he arrived, Panahi was arrested and imprisoned there as well.

Sources tell IndieWire that Panahi is currently being kept in a cell with other inmates, while his wife has been able to bring him his medications — a possibly good sign, as prisoners being tortured or interrogated for more serious charges are typically held in isolation. Regardless of how his situation unfolds, Panahi’s latest drama “No Bears” is expected to make the rounds on the fall festival circuit. Cannes, Berlin, and Venice all issued statements calling for the release of the filmmakers.

Many consider this latest chapter in Iran’s tension with its internal critics to be an inevitable development in an increasingly fragile climate. When the city’s Metropol Tower collapsed May 23, killing at least 43 people and leaving 38 unaccounted for, official rescue efforts took more than 24 hours to fully commence, with many rescue workers traveling more than 400 miles from Tehran. As locals attempted to improvise rescue efforts of their own, protests grew and the government responded with anti-riot police who fired on the crowds. That situation has persisted in the months since.

“The difference between this regime and others is that they don’t hesitate to use force against people,” said Jamsheed Akrami, an Iranian cinema scholar based in New York. “It’s part of a new wave of crackdowns on political activists by detaining well-known dissidents.”

In addition to the filmmakers, the government also arrested reformist politician and former deputy interior minister Mostafa Tajzadeh after he tweeted criticisms of the government’s policies. (The official charge against him was “acting against national security.”) Meanwhile, additional demonstrations have highlighted other issues at the forefront of Iranian society, including gender inequality.

On Tuesday, the country held its annual World Hijab Day, which attempts to celebrate its requirement that women wear headscarves in public. Several women’s rights activists have been leading protests across Iran in which they have been removing their headscarves. “In the government’s eyes, that’s similar to an act of terrorism,” Akrami said. “It’s a statement of extreme dissent.”

As arrests accelerated in recent weeks, 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.

In this photo provided by Fars News Agency, rubble remains from a 10-story commercial building under construction that collapsed killing several people in the southwestern city of Abadan, Iran, Monday, May 23, 2022. There are fears the casualty toll could be much higher as more than 80 people were still believed to be trapped under the rubble after the Metropol building toppled, burying shops and even some cars in the surrounding streets, state TV reported. (Mohammad Amin Ansari, Fars News Agency via AP)
Rubble remains from a 10-story commercial building under construction that collapsed killing several people in the southwestern city of Abadan, IranAP

In Abadan, a slew of bizarre developments and disinformation attempts further inflamed protestors. Authorities initially claimed the building owner had been arrested for causing the collapse, then said that his body had been found in the wreckage; when a corpse was brought to the local morgue with papers supposedly identifying the accused man, a doctor there refused to verify it, according to local reports. A few days later, that same doctor was found dead outside his apartment building, with officials claiming the cause was suicide in response to marital difficulties.

Another twist was almost darkly comic in its absurdity: One man carried out of the wreckage as a survivor gave interviews to TV stations about his experience, until footage emerged showing him arriving at the building shortly after it had collapsed. (He later issued a televised apology for lying about his experience.) Many suspect the man was paid by government officials to create a survival narrative for the media to distract from the grimmer stories of casualties.

In any case, Akrami said the country’s extreme tactics in response to civil unrest have grown worse as the country’s leadership faces increasing anger over inflation and poverty. “These mullahs can’t really run the country,” he said. “The majority of people put the blame straight on the regime.”

As anti-riot police continued to use violence against protestors and their numbers grew, Rasoulof and his peers issued their letter. In the wake of their arrests, filmmakers posted another letter calling for their release; it currently has over 600 signatures. Panahi was among the signatories of the second letter prior to his arrest and posted it on his Instagram account. “We condemn the suppression and the pressure that independent filmmakers and free thinkers are experiencing,” the statement reads. “We also condemn the systematic violation of the basic individual and social rights by the relevant organizations and institutions.”

Among the filmmakers who signed both letters was veteran director Mani Haghighi, who said in an interview with IndieWire that while he was somewhat concerned for his security he decided that he was comfortable speaking out. “I’m just incredibly pissed off,” he said, speaking from a post-production facility in Iran, where he was finishing up his next feature. “It’s time to do something.”

Haghighi makes unclassifiable and often surreal work that’s very different from the social realism for which his country’s filmmakers are best known. His 2003 directorial debut, “Abadan,” was about a man who dreams of traveling to the once-revered city. “In pre-revolutionary times, it was a very beautiful place, where all the British petroleum people used to live,” Haghighi said. “It was this Western oasis in the middle of nowhere. People have this romantic notion of it.”

Much of that was destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war, leaving a fragile city that in some ways embodies the country’s broader sense of decay. The collapse of the Metropol Tower, Haghighi said, became a potent metaphor for the country as a whole. “People are ready to protest for any reason because of general malaise,” he said, “but this was a pretty good reason.”

He added that the initial letter that led to the arrests was not especially inflammatory. “Under the circumstances, it seemed not only very reasonable but also the least you could ask,” he said. “Stop shooting people who are mourning.” At the same time, he acknowledged that the letter had potential to provoke a strong response. “It was threading a fine line,” Haghighi said. “If you ask the riot police to lay down their arms, you’re asking something really serious in a country like ours.”

One prominent Iranian director has yet to publicly address the arrests. Two-time Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi, whose 2021 drama “A Hero” was the country’s latest Oscar submission, did not respond to requests for comment or issue a statement on the situation. For much of the Iranian film community, this does not come as a surprise. Farhadi, who was accused of plagiarism by a former student last year and declined comment until he was asked about it at a press conference, tends to avoid making public statements about issues facing the country.

“He’s one of those filmmakers who thinks if you have a statement, you should put it in your movies,” Akrami said.

Asghar Farhadi poses for photographers upon arrival at the Women in Motion Awards during the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 22, 2022. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)
Asghar FarhadiVianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

When “A Hero” was at Cannes in 2021, a separate set of protests took place in the same province as Abadan, and some filmmakers — including Rasoulof — expressed frustration when Farhadi didn’t use his public profile to mention those events. Haghighi, who co-wrote Farhadi’s “Fireworks Wednesday” and also acted in his 2009 drama “About Elly,” defended his fellow director for not taking a more prominent stance on the current state of affairs.

“It just seems odd to me that just because you’re a very good and successful artist, you suddenly have this extra burden to deal with all these issues surrounding this art,” Haghighi said. “He isn’t the leader of this group of people who are protesting something. Farhadi is a master at threading this middle line between being a protestor and a so-called pure artist.”

Though the world’s most prominent festivals have demanded the release of the incarcerated filmmakers, none have taken more extreme measures on par with the ones that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, which inspired debate as to whether they should screen Russian films financed by the government. That tactic won’t work here: Most acclaimed Iranian films don’t utilize government resources. “The Iranian movies financed by the government are lousy,” Akrami said, “so it wouldn’t be a meaningful action.”

Rasoulof himself addressed this situation in a 2020 interview with IndieWire. “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,” Rasoulof said. “There are totally financed by military and paramilitary services specifically aimed at building propaganda films.”

There’s another possibility: Each year, Iran’s government-financed Farabi Cinema Foundation appoints an annual committee to select the country’s Oscar submission for the Best Foreign Language Film. Prominent dissident filmmakers like Panahi and Rasolouf have never made the list and Oscar voters can only vote on the Iranian film that the country submits.

It remains to be seen whether the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would consider rewriting its rules for the foreign Oscar category. That would be a radical and unprecedented maneuver and raise many other questions about submission requirements for the category around the world. “I think it’s just absurd that when it comes to the category of foreign films in the Oscars, it’s the state bodies of each country that determine which film is going to be nominated,” Haghighi said.

For now, Iranian filmmakers who remain free in the country face a more pressing question: Why not just leave? Haghighi, who was raised in Canada and went to school in the U.S., said that he often wrestles with the complexities of creating art in a country known for suppressing free speech. “I’ve thought of the pros and cons of doing this,” he said. “Of course there are moments where I feel sick and tired of this situation. On the other hand, there’s this thing called Iranian cinema, and it’s here.”

He added that signing the recent letters felt like a more constructive action than simply speaking his mind. “It’s the best you can do without resorting either to violence or the usual Twitter explosions that seem really brave while they’re taking place but are forgotten in a couple of days,” he said. “If they want to come and arrest every single one of us, if that’s the level at which the game is being played, fine.”

Haghighi is sick of considering potential repercussions. “The moment you want to talk about any of this, the moment you seek any kind of reprimand or apology, you are branded as a traitor who is destabilizing national security,” Haghighi said. “It is ridiculous and intolerable, and it has to change. And if that’s not the way they want to play it then that’s their choice. We do what we have to do, and we have very little to lose.”

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