An Iranian dissident returns home

Popular filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof has returned to Tehran from exile. In an exclusive interview, he explains why

Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof shows his green scarf — a sign of support for the country's opposition movement — in 2009.
Rafa Rivas / AFP / Getty Images

TEHRAN — Friends and family warned Mohammad Rasoulof not to return to Tehran. The award-winning director still had a prison sentence looming over his head after being arrested during a shoot in 2010, charged with threatening national security and making propaganda against Iran’s Islamic state.

Rasoulof’s friend and collaborator, the renowned director of “White Balloon,” Jafar Panahi, who was arrested at the same time, is still under house arrest. Further, Rasoulof had just released his most uncompromising film to date. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” — which won the International Federation of Film Critics Award at Cannes and is currently screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art — is an undisguised criticism of Iran’s feared security services, and Rasoulof’s most overtly political work yet. Still, he ignored the advice and came home.

He arrived in Tehran in September 2013, a month after the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani. The police confiscated his passport, but have otherwise left him alone so far. Rouhani has promised to bring change to Iran, and although that change is moving slowly, things are certainly different from when Rasoulof lived here four years ago.

“When I was arrested, I was saying the exact same things as Mr. Rouhani is saying now. I wonder why nobody arrests him,” Rasoulof says with a laugh.

The 42-year-old filmmaker shuffles around his backyard in a washed-out black sweatshirt, dragging his plastic slippers along the ground with every step. When he sits back in his chair at his small working table, shaded by a tree, he can enjoy something close to silence. This is the only interview he has agreed to since his return, but he does not seem nervous. Here, sheltered from the frantic noise of Iran’s capital, Rasoulof has room to breathe. And that is exactly what many Iranian artists hope to get under Rouhani’s government.

“Of course, one has to be very stupid to think that after Rouhani’s election, the entire Islamic Republic will change,” Rasoulof says. “The important thing is that we can help move things slowly in the right direction.”

In 2010, Mohammad Rasoulof was arrested on the set of the movie he was working on about the Green Movement protests the year before. Along with his collaborator, Jafar Panahi, he was sentenced to six years in prison (later reduced to one) and a 20-year ban on filmmaking.

The two are among Iran’s most prominent directors, having won prizes at festivals in Cannes and Berlin. But whereas Panahi’s arrest was met with international outrage in the form of protest speeches and empty jury chairs at film festivals, Rasoulof did not receive the same collegial support. He is, in a sense, the forgotten martyr of the same struggle.

But he wanted it that way. Whereas Panahi smuggled movies out of the country while under house arrest, Rasoulof kept a low profile. In Iran, sentences for political prisoners are often not carried out immediately, but continue to hover menacingly over their heads indefinitely. So while waiting to serve his sentence, Rasoulof decided to go with his wife and daughter to Germany.

Mohammad Rasoulof at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

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.

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