Rasoulof defies Iranian regime with new film

Dissident Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof has arrived in Cannes to present his new film, “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” just weeks after he escaped Iran, fleeing an eight-year prison sentence.

Details of the director’s harrowing escape were made public last week after he had already arrived safely in Germany. He left Iran over the mountainous border by foot after authorities sentenced him to a lengthy prison sentence, as well as a flogging.

Rasoulof’s case dates to 2022, when he was arrested and imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail for signing a petition calling on security forces to “Lay Down Your Arms” and exercise restraint in response to street protests. He was temporarily released on the grounds of ill health last February but remained under house arrest and the threat of the original sentence.

“I was always asking myself: ‘How will I react when I finally find out that I’m sentenced to prison?'” says Rasoulof, speaking in Cannes where “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” premiered on Friday. The thought of returning to prison didn’t frighten him, but he was finishing his movie and wasn’t about to let the police stop him from doing so.

Film still  from 'The Seed of the Sacred Fig': Three women in a living room.
Bypassing the Iranian regime’s approval, Rasoulof shows women without headscarves in ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’Image: Courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival

Escape across the mountains to freedom

“It was quite clear for me is that what mattered most now was to go on making films and telling my stories,” he says. “I had more stories to tell, and nothing could stop me from telling them.”

In jail, Rasoulof’s cellmates had told him about a secret route over the mountains to the border — the route he took to freedom.

“In retrospect, I think that I was extremely lucky and privileged to go to prison because that’s where I met people, very useful people, who helped me to cross the border,” says Rasoulof.

Rasoulof chose Germany for his exile because “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” was being edited in Hamburg — by Fatih Akin’s editor, Andrew Bird. He had lived in the country before, so his information was already on file with the German authorities. They were able to ID him even without his passport, which the Iranian police had seized.

Cannes film shot in secret without government approval

“The Seed of the Sacred Fig” follows Iman, an investigator for Iran’s Revolutionary Court who is loyal to the regime but has begun to question the arbitrary and summary nature of the death warrants he is asked to sign. At home, his wife and young daughters become caught up in the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests sparked by the death, in custody, of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini in 2022.

Amini had been detained for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly and was reportedly beaten by the police.

What’s behind Iran’s ‘woman, life, freedom’ protests?

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Like his last film, “There Is No Evil,” which won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlinale in 2020, “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” was shot in secret, without official government approval.

Rasoulof has been banned from making movies in Iran since 2017 but has continued to work, securing money from outside the country — mainly from Europe — and has developed an elaborate clandestine system to avoid detection and government censorship.

The result is that “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” can show scenes that would never appear in an officially approved Iranian film.

We see the women inside, without their headscarves, an absolute taboo. Rasoulof includes extensive cellphone footage posted on Iranian social media of police cracking down on “Women Life Freedom” protesters. Those images had been banned by Iran’s authorities.

Film still from 'The Seed of the Sacred Fig': A person wearing a blindfold and a headscarf holds a piece of paper up in the air.
Footage that has been banned by the regime is included in the filmImage: Courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival

‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’ takes the perpetrators’ perspective

The director says he decided to focus on the perpetrators, those enforcing government repression in Iran, rather than just the victims, after meeting a government official in prison who confessed he was tortured by his complicity with the authoritarian regime.

“He said: ‘Don’t think that we are happy doing this. Every day when I enter this prison, I look at the gate and think: When am I going to hang myself in front of that door? Every day, my children ask me: What is your job? What do you actually do?’ That was the seed of this story,” Rasoulof recalls.

“I used to observe the Iranian regime as a whole as a system and not really pay attention to its function,” says Rasoulof. “But with my last two films, ‘A Man of Integrity’ and ‘There Is No Evil,’ and even more here, I’m getting closer and closer to the elements that make this machine work. Who are these people who help the regime? What are their motivations? I’ve tried to really get close to them to understand the psychology, their relation to this system they nourish.”

This hasn’t made Rasoulof any friends in the Iranian government. The director says it’s unlikely he’ll be able to return to his country anytime soon. He says he is embracing the idea of becoming an exiled artist, part of the vast diaspora of Iranian people forced to flee the country “because they weren’t able to carry on with their lives as they wished … now I am one of them.”

Film still from 'The Seed of the Sacred Fig': A man and a woman sitting next to each other on a couch in a darkened room.
Rasoulof has been exploring in his films how ordinary people contribute to the upkeep of the authoritarian regimeImage: Courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival

No safe place from the Iranian regime

Even in Europe, Rasoulof says he can never be completely safe from the violence of the Iranian state. “[They] can reach me if they want,” he notes. “I will never forget that the Islamic Republic is a terrorist … This is something that I have in me, always. I don’t forget who the adversary is.”

But the director has vowed to continue telling his truth about Iran wherever he is. Working in exile will mean new restrictions, but Rasoulof says he is “used to creating in spite of constraints and restrictions. I will keep telling my stories. If I have to do it using puppets or clay figures, I will not stop.”

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Iranian filmmakers tell tales of brave women

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