The Shiraz-born director had his first international success in 2005 with “Iron Island” and went on to win in the Un Certain Regard category in Cannes with “Goodbye” (“Be Omid-e Didar”) in 2011. Like many Iranian films, which are among the most acclaimed in the Middle East, all his films have been banned in Iran. Like other prominent directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami and Bahman Ghobadi, self-imposed exile gave him both more recognition and creative freedom.
“Iranians create their own heroes, even though real heroes don’t exist. It’s painful to me that the image of me the media created is so different from who I really am,” he says, glancing down at the two adopted kittens wrestling around his ankles and rattling the teacups on the table.
It was not only the fans and the media that suddenly portrayed Rasoulof as a political activist. So did the regime. And with their arrest, the government chose to make an example of Rasoulof and Panahi. “They turned Jafar and me into two people you hang at the entrance of a city,” Rasoulof says. “I didn’t like being portrayed as anything but an artist. I couldn’t handle it.”
In Europe, Rasoulof’s views changed. “I realized that I had spent all these years developing this metaphorical language to stay out of trouble,” he says with a laugh. “But when I came out of prison I realized I didn’t have anything to lose.”
Last year, Hassan Rouhani won the presidency on two main promises: To fix Iran’s economy by improving international relations, and to loosen the social restrictions imposed by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Domestic opposition to Rouhani’s cultural policy is fierce. Even Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has publicly ordered the government to “confront destructive cultural issues” more forcefully.
Refusing to roll over, Rouhani responded, in a speech available on his website, that “True art will never be created in an unfree society.… This administration does not intend to continue censorship in order to impede the work of artists.” It remains to be seen whether Rouhani will come out on top in this battle. So far, he has thrown filmmakers a bone by reopening the House of Cinema, the country’s main film industry guild, which had been closed for two years.
While Rasoulof declines to talk specifics when it comes to his arrest, he readily talks about how the Iranian state tries to control artists in general. Few rules are in writing and censorship is surprisingly arbitrary. Increasingly, he says, the regime has constructed “a sacred bubble around everything,” making even the smallest critique a crime. Consequently, many artists and intellectuals fear that their work will be interpreted as a political threat, and for the past four years, he says, Iranian filmmakers have been paralyzed by self-control.
“What is harming us is not so much external censorship, it's that we are conditioned to self-censorship,” he says. “Now, the government says, ‘OK, guys, do whatever you want.’ But people have internalized self-censorship to an extent where they are not even able to work anymore.”
Once, Rasoulof recalls, he visited a village where people have been intermarrying for decades. Inbreeding has made everyone blind, physically as well as intellectually. Nothing stops them from moving out, but it has never occurred to them that there might be other places to go.
“Censorship in Iran is very similar to this village. People are always waiting for something to happen from the outside, for some kind of miracle,” Rasoulof says. "If I have to close my eyes on something, I prefer not to do it on my social environment. I prefer to make my movie, and then close my eyes on the fear of the possible repercussions," he says. “We don't need a revolution, we just need to acknowledge the problems we have.“
Rasoulof’s latest oeuvre is stripped of all self-censorship. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” tells the story of two agents for the regime chasing a writer who is allegedly in the possession of a document revealing the government’s attempt to assassinate a group of writers. The plot is inspired by real events — an assassination attempt on 21 Iranian dissidents in 1995 — but even as the movie exposes the brutal nature of the regime, it also humanizes the thugs who serve it.
The title is a nod to Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1967 novel “The Master and Margarita,” in which the main character tries unsuccessfully to burn a manuscript he is working on. Rasoulof doesn’t compare himself to the Russian master, but he knows what it’s like to attempt to suppress creative ideas.
“I really tried to convince myself not to make this movie,” he says. He even had a contract with a German producer for a different movie, “but there was something inside me I couldn’t get rid of,” he explains, adding with a sly smile, “But now I feel at peace with myself.”
So why has Rasoulof chosen to return to Iran? Paradoxically, he says, to find hope, without which he is unable to work.
“Sometimes we lose hope. When you are far away, the changes here look very small, but when you look at Iran close up, you see that things are actually moving. I know it sounds optimistic, but optimism helps us see the changes that are happening,” he says.