Culture war: Iran’s actors and directors oppose the crackdown on protests

Mohammad Khazaee, director of Iran’s official cinema organization, was outraged by the impact of the three-month anti-regime uprising, a widespread social and political movement that has attracted support from some of the country’s top film industry stars.

“Until the day I get there, we will not lose the hijab in cinemas and films will not be shown without the hijab,” the 46-year-old director-producer said at a meeting of film industry officials on December 16. We didn’t come all the way here just to go back to the sixties and seventies. This is the cinema of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And for that we gave our blood.”

Khazaee, who was appointed to his post shortly after hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi took office in 2021, lamented that the unrest was costing the film industry jobs and prospects, and suggested that actors, directors and producers who were protesting supported, would pay.

A day later, Taraneh Alidoosti, one of the country’s top actresses, the female lead of Asghar Farhadi’s 2016 Oscar-winning company, The sellerShe was arrested at her home and her belongings ransacked. Then she was imprisoned in Tehran’s fortress-like Evin prison, where she remains.

Observers familiar with Iran’s cultural world compared Alidoosti’s arrest to the FBI’s arrest of Angelina Jolie or Scotland Yard’s arrest of Olivia Colman for speaking out against their governments.

“Imagine Scarlett Johansson or Meryl Streep being thrown in jail and risking death for simply opposing the execution of an innocent protester,” said Sepideh Moafi, an Iranian-American television personality The Independent. “When celebrities like Taraneh are thrown in jail so casually, the average citizen can only expect them to be treated even more ruthlessly.”

Sanam Vakil, Iran and Middle East expert at Chatham House in London, said: “The Iranian regime wants to show that no one is above the law and that it will stop at no one to enforce its actions.”

Hundreds of Iranians have been killed and thousands more arrested in protests since the nationwide uprising began, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while he was in the custody of vice squads. At least two protesters were executed by the regime after trials were judged to be below the Islamic Republic’s dismal record.

Despite the dangers, new calls for three-day protests and strikes emerged from Monday.

Artists, athletes and other celebrities have spoken out, some under pressure from their own fans. Female actors have shown public defiance, including by appearing without their Islamic headscarves and in public social media posts. Her male colleagues support her.

In November Alidoosti sent a photo of herself on Instagram without a headscarf and holding a sign that reads “Women, Life, Freedom,” the Kurdish-inspired slogan of the protest movement sparked by Amini’s death. But Alidoosti was apparently arrested for opposing the execution of a young Iranian protester after a quick, secret trial on charges against God.

“Their silence is tantamount to supporting the oppressor and oppressing,” the actor wrote on social media after the hanging of Mohsen Shekari, a 23-year-old accused of injuring a pro-regiment gunman during a protest .

“Any international organization that watches this bloodshed and fails to act is a disgrace to humanity,” she added in English.

The 38-year-old actor has reportedly been charged with “spreading untruths” on social media. Alidoosti’s arrest was triumphantly reported by pro-regime media.

Alidoosti is a giant of Iranian cinema, winner of many national and international awards. She first gained national and international fame as a 17-year-old in the leading role I’m Taraneh, 15a 2002 film about a divorced teenager who decides to raise a child alone.

“There is absolutely no equivalent of Taraneh in the West. There are feminist actresses like Emma Watson or activists like Angelina Jolie, and I admire them for what they do, but they’re not really in much danger in their activism,” said Ahmad Kiarostami, an Iranian-American filmmaker and philanthropist Son of one of Iran’s most famous directors, the late Abbas Kiarostami. “The worst case scenario, they could get backlash from some of their audience and get fewer projects. In Taraneh’s case, it’s a lot more than just losing some work. If she took off her hijab, she would not be given permission to act and there could potentially be much more serious consequences, such as imprisonment and possibly many more.”

An open letter demanding Alidoosti’s release was signed by celebrities including Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance, Mark Ruffalo, Ian McKellen, David Hare and Moafi.

“The Iranian authorities made a strategic decision to arrest Taraneh before Christmas to ensure their international counterparts are distracted,” the letter said. “But let’s not get distracted. We are outraged. Taraneh Alidoosti, like all citizens of Iran, has the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. We hereby express our solidarity with her and call for her immediate release and safe return to her family.”

On Sunday, regime officials also arrested Amir Maqareh, lead singer of the band Makan, for posting support for the nationwide uprising on his Instagram page. Last month, soccer star Voria Ghafouri was briefly arrested for publicly expressing his solidarity with protesters by visiting the families of those killed in the protests.

The film occupies a unique place in Iran’s cultural landscape. For decades, Iranian cinema has made a name for itself around the world with outlandish depictions of everyday life peppered with subtle critiques of oppression and injustice. Even before the uprising, the regime seemed particularly sensitive to statements of opposition from leaders in the arts, especially cinema.

Acclaimed filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof, Mostafa Al-Ahmad and Jafar Panahi, who has been in jail since the 2009 protests, were arrested in the summer. Others, like Mohammad Makhmalbaf, have fled into exile.

Before Alidoosti’s arrest, actors Hengameh Qaziani and Katayoun Riah were arrested and released on bail.

“Celebrities have influence,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle East studies specializing in Iran at the University of Denver. “If they speak out politically, they can mobilize citizens to take collective action.”

Hashemi added that the outspokenness of such celebrities could attract those who oppose the regime but remain silent for the time being.

“The level of anger and discontent is very broad and deep and has not yet manifested itself on the streets,” he said. “A lot of people are still sitting on the fence. The Islamic Republic fears this if celebrities speak up – and the number of demonstrators increases from thousands to millions of people. Hence the attempt to silence Alidoosti and other popular influencers.”

If arrests are meant to silence Iranian celebrities, it can also have the opposite effect. A day after Alidoosti’s arrest, a group of Iranian film industry leaders gathered in front of Evin prison to show their support. Among them was the famous Rakhshan Bani-Etmad.

On the same day, Niki Karimi, arguably post-revolutionary Iran’s most famous actor and respected director, posted a scathing note on social media. The 51-year-old revealed in the long note that she had received anonymous calls asking her to remain silent, but said she could no longer remain silent.

“I quit all my jobs, I quit my contracts, whether acting or producing,” she wrote. “In these few months of suffocation and intimidation, my throat is filled with stifled cries, my dreams are filled with hate, tears and confusion.”

Moafi, a star in the Ensemble series The L word said giving people like Alidoosti or Karimi a voice “also helps bring an international spotlight to the atrocities committed by this regime that up to this point have been consciously or unconsciously normalized by our global community.”

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-taraneh-alidoosti-mahsa-amini-film-b2248252.html Culture war: Iran’s actors and directors oppose the crackdown on protests

JOE HERNANDEZ

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