Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Milad Alami, Sepideh Farsi Discuss Censorship and Challenges for Diverse, Independent Iranian Cinema at Cannes Panel

Leading lights of contemporary Iranian cinema, including “Holy Spider” actor Zar Amir Ebrahimi, “The Siren” director Sepideh Farsi, “The Opponent” helmer Milad Alami and producer Kaveh Farnam, turned up at the Cannes Film Festival to raise the alarm on the repression faced by Iranian cinema during a session hosted by Amazon Prime Video’s Sahar Baghery.

Iran has been the centerstage of widespread protests driven by women against the Islamic regime since Mahsa Amini died in police custody for for wearing her hijab too loosely in September 2022. Although the rebellion has garnered vocal support outside of Iran, it hasn’t succeeded in dethroning the Iranian regime. A number of dissident Iranian filmmakers and talent have been jailed over the last six months, notably Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof who was recently released from prison. Rasoulof was nevertheless banned from leaving Iran to serve on the jury of Un Certain Regard at Cannes.

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As Baghery noted, “Iran is experiencing what is considered the greatest repression on Iranian cinema. You can be arrested, imprisoned, held without judgement. Even if you win international awards, you can be spared for a while then one day you are stopped at the airport and your passport is being confiscated. It’s like an unpredictable quicksand,” said the Paris-born executive of Iranian origins who is in charge of co-production and acquisition for Prime Video in France.

The panel, which was also attended by revered scholar Asal Bagheri, who highlighted the polarization of Iranian cinema between politically minded Iranian movies that travel to festivals and the local output of mainstream propaganda entertainment that’s closely tied to the government and the Islamic regime.

Iranian cinema has become an “important voice of resistance in Iran since the late 1980’s in post-revolution era and has managed to bypass censorship,” said Bagheri, who added that “one of the major evolution of Iranian cinema concerned the representation of women.” A doctor in semiology and linguistics, Bagheri is about publish a book titled “Feelings, Love and Sexuality: the Cinema’s Dilemma in Islamic Republic of Iran”.

She said that up until the end of the 1980’s, the Islamic republic “wanted to prevent a modern representation of the Iranian society” but they failed. Today, “single parents, family divorced and women fighting for their rights have become the leitmotif of Iranian cinema.” She said she wasn’t surprised to see “all these courageous women at the forefront of the protests.”

Farsi, whose latest film, the politically engaged animated feature “The Siren” opened the Berlinale’s Panorama section this year, spoke about facing Iranian censorship with her 2006 movie “The Gaze” which revolved a left-wing intellectual who returns to Iran after living in exile in Paris.

She said she initially tried to play by the rules so that her movies could be seen by people inside Iran but “it never happened because they all got censored.” She said she obtained the permission to shoot the film but didn’t obtain a visa to release it in Iran. “The most problematic part of the film for them was neither the left wing background of the character who was returning from exile, nor the metaphor about the repression of dissidents in the 1980s. It was the ending sequence of the film because ‘an unmarried couple cannot go to a hotel room.'”

After refusing to cut the scene, she said she took off to the Rotterdam Film Festival for the movie’s world premiere. “Then it was released outside and in France and elsewhere, and of course I got into trouble because I couldn’t make films in Iran anymore,” Farsi said.

Farsi also directed “Red Rose” about the social revolt that erupted after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s usurped election in 2009. She said the movie explored the way the younger generation is protesting on the streets and using social media.

“I’m glad to say the Iranian filmmakers inside Iran is tearing apart this curtain to show that Iranian society is very complex,” she continued.

Farnam, who has produced many movies by Rasoulof, including his Berlinale Golden Bear-winning “There is No Evil” and “A Man of Integrity” which won Un Certain Regard Award in Cannes, said Iranian have been “facing trouble with censorship” for the last 100 years.

“We always try to deal with censorship in a way. We always try to find a solution. We hide our character, hide the touching, and so on but what we’ve understood after all these years is that the way to deal with censorship is to not accept it at all,” said Farnam.

Amir Ebrahimi, who won best actress last year at Cannes for her performance in Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider,” also worked on the film as an associate producer. She said getting an authentic Iranian cast for the movie was crucial. “When you’re dealing with European producers, they argue that since your audience is your Iranian it doesn’t matter if the actor has an accent or if the location doesn’t look right.”

She said the casting process for “Holy Spider” took almost three years. “Ali went to Iran and we just organized a week of casting and auditions, and it was surprising that so many actors and crew members who live in Iran were all interested to work on this project, even if they knew that it was going to be risky for them because the subject is sensitive for the government and working with a European production, working with me and Ali, it’s very risky for them,” said Amir Ebrahimi, who is currently developing a feature debut under the working title of “Honor of Persia” and just received an inaugural Breakthrough Award from Variety and the Golden Globes at a Cannes event.

Amir Ebrahimi fled Iran in 2006, when she faced possible stoning and lashing following the release of a sex tape. “Holy Spider” was based on the true story of a family man who became a serial killer and murdered sex workers in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad. The movie “exposes a daily reality of prostitution, patriarchy and socio-political injustices.”

Amir Ebrahimi said since starring in the film, Mehdi Bajestani “never got back to his home country in Iran. He’s now stuck in Europe.”

Alami, whose sophomore film “The Opponent” played at the Berlinale, said both “The Opponent” and his debut “The Charmer” looked at the “refugee system in Sweden and Denmark and how flawed it is and a critique to the Iranian regime and how it’s threatening people.”

Alami, who fled Iran with his family in 1987, pointed out both movies were co-productions. “It’s impossible to make these films in Iran. Both are about men whose only currency is their body and they’re about intimacy, sexuality, violence and freedom.”

He said he grew up feeling “obsessed with Iranian cinema because (he) was an outsider.” “The older I got and the more I got into films, it felt almost like a responsibility to tell stories that say something about this regime for the sake of people who’re trapped in that system and can’t speak up.”

Like Alami or Abbasi, most Iranian filmmakers are now working with international partners and insitutions.

“There Is No Evil” got funding from France’s National Film Board’s Cinema du Monde initiative, co-produced with Germany and traveled to 25 countries around the world, while “Holy Spider” involved four different European countries. “Opponent” is a Nordic collaboration between Sweden, Norway and Denmark, while “The Siren” is a coproduction between Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, produced by Les films d’ici and distributed by Wild Bunch.

But Amir Ebrahimi argued that while “France has largely contributed to the development of Iranian cinema in the Western world (…) the breadth of Iranian movies is even more extensive, lively, innovative and more audacious than it appears.”

The panelists and attendees also observed a minute of silence to pay homage to the three men, Majid Kazemi, Saleh Mirhashemi and Saeed Yaghoubi, who were executed last week in Iran over anti-government protests.

“Iran is a country where politics have been imprisoning us as citizens, as artists, filmmakers, intellectuals and human beings,” said Farsi.

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