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Iranian Filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof Narrates His Harrowing Choice Between Exile and Imprisonment

During an emotional press conference at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof shared the anguished decision he had to make between going into exile or serving a severe prison sentence. Known for his thought-provoking cinema, Rasoulof’s new drama “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” was unveiled at the festival amidst the backdrop of his recent decision to flee Iran.

Just under two weeks ago, Rasoulof announced that he had left Iran and entered into exile after being sentenced to eight years in prison, accompanied by flogging. The sentence emerged from his ongoing confrontations with Iranian authorities over his cinematic works, which are often critical of social and political issues within the country.

“As soon as I learned that I only had a week left before my sentence would be enforced, everything moved incredibly fast,” Rasoulof recounted. Within this urgent timeframe, the authorities also became aware of his new film, pushing him to make an almost immediate decision. “I had to ask myself: do I want to be in prison, or should I leave Iran, geographic Iran, and join the cultural Iran that exists beyond its borders?” he continued.

The filmmaker revealed that the entire thought process took just two hours. “I walked around, I paced around my house. I said goodbye to my plants, which I love dearly. I have many, many plants in my house,” he shared, visibly emotional. Rasoulof left behind all his possessions and walked out of his home, understanding the gravity and permanence of his decision.

Speaking to journalists, he disclosed how the choice still haunts him. “It’s not an easy decision to take. It still isn’t easy even to talk about it today with you,” he said, his voice tinged with the weight of his words.

In a stark response to Rasoulof’s decision and his film, Iran’s culture minister Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili announced that the movie was created illegally.

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. He declared there would be a crackdown on films produced without government permits, intensifying the already fraught atmosphere for filmmakers in Iran.

“The Seed of the Sacred Fig” provides a chilling depiction of an increasingly authoritarian court official during the 2022 protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. Amini, a Kurdish woman, died after being detained by the morality police for alleged dress code violations, sparking widespread demonstrations.

The film’s premiere received the longest standing ovation of the festival, resonating deeply with its audience. Critics and festival-goers praised it as “mesmerizingly gripping” and “shattering,” reflecting the profound impact of Rasoulof’s storytelling.

Rasoulof has faced numerous arrests and detentions over the years, accused of crimes ranging from filming without permits to “collusion against national security.” The themes and characters in his latest film, he explained, are drawn from his real-life encounters with Iran’s secret services. “All these characters were inspired by real people, all the scenes come from real situations,” he asserted, underscoring the authenticity and urgency of his work.

Despite the constant threat from authorities, Rasoulof has learned to navigate life under scrutiny. “Our life is fairly similar to that of gangsters, except we are gangsters of the cinema,” he remarked humorously, lightening the somber mood of the press conference.

Rasoulof’s experiences encapsulate the broader struggle of many artists and intellectuals in Iran, where creative expression often comes at the cost of personal freedom. His choice to join the diaspora of cultural Iran speaks to a significant loss within the country while enriching the global exchange of ideas and narratives.

As he stands at Cannes, Rasoulof serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices many endure to uphold artistic integrity and freedom. His story is not just his own; it echoes the silenced voices of countless others who continue to fight for their right to create and express.

The applause and acclaim for “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” at Cannes reaffirm the power of cinema to transcend borders and challenge authoritarian regimes. Rasoulof’s journey, marked by courage and resilience, offers hope and inspiration to artists worldwide who navigate similar threats to their freedom and existence.