Venice Film Festival: Two jailed Iranian filmmakers vow to keep creating

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Two jailed Iranian filmmakers have issued a defiant challenge to authorities in Iran, vowing in a message to fellow cineastes at the Venice Film Festival that they will not stop creating.

Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi – whose film “Khers Nist” (No Bears) is in competition for Venice’s top Golden Lion prize – have both been behind bars since July amid a crackdown on dissident voices in all sectors of society.

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Rasoulof, 50, was arrested after having launched a petition from directors and actors urging security forces to lay down their arms in the face of a wave of protests. His anti-capital-punishment movie “There is No Evil” won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in 2020.

Fellow prize-winning director Panahi, 62, was detained while seeking information about Rasoulof’s whereabouts and told he had to serve a six-year sentence previously handed out.

A third filmmaker, Mostafa Aleahmad, was also arrested and jailed in July.

In the statement issued Sunday by festival organizers, the directors said that as members of Iran’s independent cinema movement with a calling to create, “those in power see us as criminals.”

“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,” the directors wrote.

“While on this path, some were banned from making films, others were forced into exile or reduced to isolation. And yet, the hope of creating again is a reason for existence,” said the statement.

“No matter where, when, or under what circumstances, an independent filmmaker is either creating or thinking about creation. We are filmmakers, independent ones.”

Panahi has won a slew of awards at international festivals for films critiquing modern Iran, including the top prize in Berlin for “Taxi” in 2015, and best screenplay at Cannes for his film “Three Faces” in 2018.

He was arrested in 2010 following his support for anti-government protests and later convicted of “propaganda against the system.” The six-year sentence he is now serving relates to that conviction.

The current repression in Iran, which comes one year into the rule of President Ebrahim Raisi, the ultra-conservative former judiciary chief, is not only targeted at artists.

Regime critics from a wide range of sectors have been arrested, from trade union activists, to campaigners against the enforced wearing of the headscarf for women, to religious minorities.

International film festivals, including Venice and Cannes, have called for the filmmakers’ release.

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