Rasoulof’s feature film, ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’, about a judge grappling with paranoia amid political unrest in Tehran, is scheduled to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 14

Days before the premiere of his feature film The Seed of the Sacred Fig at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival on May 14, prominent Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof was sentenced by an appellate court to eight years in prison for ‘collusion against national security,’ on Wednesday. According to Rasoulof’s lawyer Babak Paknia, the verdict has been confirmed by the appeals court and also includes ‘flogging, a fine, and confiscation of property.’ The Islamic Revolution Court, which interpreted Rasoulof’s public declarations and his involvement in film and documentary production as instances of collaboration aimed at undermining the security of the country, cited the same as primary grounds for the sentence, the lawyer added.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig, Rasoulof’s 10th film, is centred on Iman, an investigating judge in the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, who grapples with mistrust and paranoia as nationwide political protests intensify and his gun mysteriously disappears. He begins to suspect his wife and daughters, imposing draconian measures that strain family ties as social rules crumble. The film is due to be shown at the main competition at the Cannes festival.

Pressured to withdraw the film from Cannes

The 52-year-old director, however, will only serve five years of the term in jail, Paknia said in a post on X (erstwhile Twitter). Under Iranian law, jail sentences run concurrently. Rasoulof was originally scheduled to take part in the 2023 Cannes Film Festival as a jury member of the Un Certain Regard section. However, he was arrested in July 2022 after criticising the government’s crackdown on protesters in the southwestern city of Abadan over deadly building collapse, along with two other eminent directors, Jafar Panahi and Mostafa Aleahmad. He was released the following year after a wave of nationwide protests that began in September 2022, in the wake of Mehsa Amini’s custodial killing, subsided.

After The Seed of the Sacred Fig was selected for Cannes on April 22, the cast and crew of the film were interrogated by Iranian authorities, banned from leaving the country, and pressured to convince Rasoulof to withdraw the film from the festival line-up. On April 30, Paknia said that the Iranian authorities had summoned for questioning some crew members involved in the production of the film, adding that they were under pressure to have it withdrawn from the Cannes festival. Rasoulof, who has ‘violated’ Iranian censorship regulations with his films and given three prison sentences earlier, was temporarily released from prison in February 2023 due to his ill health. Later, he was pardoned and sentenced to a year in prison and a two-year ban on leaving Iran for ‘propaganda against the regime’.

Rasoulof won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his anti-capital punishment film, ‘There Is No Evil,’ in 2020

The crackdown on filmmakers

Incidentally, Rasoulof won the Golden Bear, the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize, for his anti-capital punishment film There Is No Evil, in 2020. The jail term for Rasoulof is part of the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on filmmakers in recent years. Saeed Roustaee was sentenced to six months in prison for the screening of his film Leila’s Brothers at the 2022 festival. Iranian authorities said at the time it had been shown without authorisation. The film’s star, Taraneh Alidoosti, was released in early 2023 after almost three weeks in jail over her support for the protest movement which broke out in 2022.

One of Iran’s most politically outspoken filmmakers, Panahi was arrested in 2010 and convicted of national security violations as a documentary he was making chronicled the protests that followed the disputed reelection of Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Panahi and Rasoulof were sentenced to six years in prison and barred from writing screenplays and travelling abroad for 20 years. Panahi, who won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2015 for his film Taxi, was arrested when he went to the prosecutor’s office to check on Rasoulof and Aleahmad in late 2022. Last year, on February 3, Panahi was released from prison after he declared a hunger strike, stating, “I will remain in this state until perhaps my lifeless body is freed from prison.”

Rasoulof, an independent filmmaker, is known for several award-winning films, including The Twilight, Iron Island, Goodbye, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, and A Man of Integrity. His first feature-length film, The Twilight (Gagooman), was released in 2002 and was awarded with the Crystal Simorgh for the Best First Film at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran. Two of his feature films, Iron Island (Jazire-ye ahani) and The White Meadows (Keshtzarha-ye sepid), were released in 2005 and 2009, respectively. Goodbye (Be omid-e didar) premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in the section Un Certain Regard and won the prize for directing. Another of his films, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, was also screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. For A Man of Integrity, Rasoulof won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes in 2017.

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