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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Borzou Daragahi

Culture war: Iran’s actors and directors take stand against protest crackdown


Mohammad Khazaee, director of Iran’s official cinema organisation, was indignant about the impact of the three-month anti-regime uprising, a widespread social and political movement that has drawn the support of some of the top stars of the country’s film industry.

“Until the day I am there, we will not lose the hijab in the cinema and film will not be screened without the hijab,” the 46-year-old director and producer said in a 16 December gathering of film industry types.  We have not come all this way only to return to the Sixties and Seventies. This is the cinema of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And we have given our blood for it.”

Khazaee, appointed to his post shortly after hardline president Ebrahim Raisi took office in 2021, complained that the unrest was costing the film industry jobs and prospects, and suggested that the actors, directors and producers who supported the protests would pay.

A day later, Taraneh Alidoosti, one of the country’s top actors, the female lead of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning  2016 firm, The Salesman, was arrested at her home, her personal belongings rummaged through. Then she was locked up inside Tehran’s fortress-like Evin prison, where she remains.

Observers knowledgeable of Iran’s cultural world likened the arrest of Alidoosti to the FBI detaining Angelina Jolie or Scotland Yard arresting Olivia Colman for speaking out against their governments.

“Imagine if Scarlett Johansson or Meryl Streep were thrown in prison, risking death for simply speaking out against the execution of an innocent protester,” Sepideh Moafi, an Iranian-American television star, told The Independent. “If celebrities like Taraneh are being thrown into prison so casually, then the average citizen can only assume that they will be dealt with even more ruthlessly.”

Sanam Vakil, an 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 they will stop at no one to enforce their crackdown.”

Since the start of the nationwide uprising sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, hundreds of Iranians have been killed in protests and thousands more have been arrested. At least two protesters have been put to death by the regime after trials decried as even below the Islamic Republic’s dismal track record.

Despite the dangers, fresh calls emerged for three days of protests and strikes beginning Monday.

Artists, athletes and other celebrities have spoken out, some under pressure by their own fans. Female actors have made public shows of defiance, including by appearing without their Islamic headscarves and in public social media posts. Their male colleagues have come out in support.

In November, Alidoosti posted a photo of herself on Instagram without her hijab and holding up a sign proclaiming “women, life, freedom”, the Kurdish-inspired slogan of the protest movement sparked by Amini’s death. But Alidoosti was apparently detained for speaking out against the execution of a young Iranian protester after a quick, secret trial on charges of acting against God.

“Your silence is tantamount to support of the oppressor and oppression,” the actor wrote on social media after the 8 December hanging of Mohsen Shekari, a 23-year-old charged with injuring a pro-regime gunman during a protest.

“Every international organisation who is watching this bloodshed and not taking action is a disgrace to humanity,” she added in English.

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

Alidoosti is a giant in Iranian cinema, the winner of many national and international awards. She first came to national and international prominence as a 17-year-old in the lead role of I’m Taraneh, 15, a 2002 film about a teenaged divorcee who decides to raise a child on her own. 

“There’s 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 don’t really face a big danger in their activism,” said Ahmad Kiarostami, an Iranian-American filmmaker and philanthropist who is the son of one of Iran’s most famous directors, the late Abbas Kiarostami. “Worst case, they may get a backlash from part of their audience and get less projects. In Taraneh’s case, it’s a lot more than just losing some work. When she removed her hijab she would not get permit to act, and there potentially be much more serious consequences, such as jail and potentially a lot more.”

An open letter demanding the release of Alidoosti has been signed by celebrities including Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance, Mark Ruffalo, Ian McKellen, David Hare, and Moafi.

“The Iranian authorities have strategically chosen to arrest Taraneh before Christmas to ensure her international peers would be distracted,” the letter says. “But we are not distracted. We are outraged. Taraneh Alidoosti, like all citizens of Iran, has a right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. We hereby stand in solidarity with her and demand 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, football star Voria Ghafouri was briefly arrested for publicly showing solidarity with protesters by visiting the families of those who had been killed in the protests.

Film occupies a singular space in Iran’s cultural landscape. For decades Iranian cinema has made a name for itself globally with edgy depictions of daily life laced with subtle critiques of oppression and injustice. Even before the uprising, the regime appeared particularly sensitive to shows of defiance by leaders in the arts field, especially cinema.

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

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

“Celebrities have influence,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle East studies specialising in Iran at the University of Denver. “When they speak out politically they can mobilise citizens in collective action.”

Hashemi added the outspokenness by such celebrities could draw those opposed to the regime but keeping quiet for now.

“The level of anger and discontent is very wide and deep and this has not manifested itself on the streets yet,” he said. “Many people are still sitting on the fence. This is what the Islamic Republic fears when celebrities speak out – increasing the number of protesters from thousands to millions of people. Thus, the attempt to silence Alidoosti and other popular influencers.”

If arrests are meant to silence Iran’s celebrities, it may 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 celebrated Rakhshan Bani-Etmad.

On the same day, Niki Karimi, arguably post-revolutionary Iran’s most famous actor as well as a well-regarded director posted a scathing note on social media. The 51-year-old revealed in the lengthy note that she had been receiving anonymous phone calls demanding she stay silent, but that she could no longer keep quiet.

“I have cancelled all my jobs, I have cancelled my contracts, whether for acting or producing,” she wrote. “In these few months of suffocation and intimidation, my throat is full of suppressed screams, my dreams are full of hatred, tears, and confusion from this.”

Moafi, a star in the ensemble series The L Word said having people like Alidoosti or Karimi speak out “also helps shine an international spotlight on the atrocities committed by this regime that up until this point were consciously or subconsciously normalised by our global community”.

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