Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker flees to Europe after prison and flogging sentence

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Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof says he has fled his home country to an undisclosed location in Europe after a court in Iran sentenced him to prison on national security charges.

Rasoulof condemned the Iranian government in an Instagram post on Monday, calling it a tyrannical and oppressive regime, and posting a video that showed him crossing the country’s mountainous border.

“If geographical Iran suffers beneath the boots of your religious tyranny, cultural Iran is alive in the common minds of millions of Iranians who were forced to leave Iran due to your brutality and no power can impose its will on it. From today, I am a resident of cultural Iran,” he said.

In a separate statement dated May 12, Rasoulof said he had decided to escape Iran after his lawyers told him his prison sentence would be implemented on short notice.

“I had to choose between prison and leaving Iran. With a heavy heart, I chose exile,” he said in that statement, which was provided by a spokesperson.

Rasoulof is among several high-profile artists to have been caught up in a widening crackdown on dissent by Iranian authorities since nationwide protests broke out over the 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly not wearing her headscarf properly.

Rasoulof, whose recent films have been critical of the Iranian government, was among a group of artists and filmmakers who signed a letter criticizing the violent response of security forces to quell a 2022 protest over a building collapse in the southwestern city of Abadan that killed more than 40 people.

Rasoulof won a Golden Bear for best film at the Berlinale festival in 2020 for “There Is No Evil” and his film “A Man of Integrity” was recognized for a “Certain Regard” honor at the Cannes Film Festival in France in 2017.

The filmmaker’s latest work, “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” is set to premiere at Cannes next week, but it’s unclear if he will be able to attend.

“We are very happy and much relieved that Mohammad has safely arrived in Europe after a dangerous journey,” said Jean-Christophe Simon, the distributor for Rasoulof’s latest film.

The Films Boutique and Parallel45 executive added that he hopes that Rasoulof will be able to attend the Cannes premiere for his film “in spite of all attempts to prevent him from being there in person.”

Rasoulof said on Instagram that he will now work to quickly finish the last technical steps of his film’s post-production.

“Many people helped to make this film. My thoughts are with all of them, and I fear for their safety and well-being,” he said, accusing the Iranian government of pressuring members of his production team with interrogations, court filings and travel restrictions.

Rasoulof didn’t specify how he escaped Iran, saying only that he did it secretly with the help of friends and acquaintances.

In 2022, an Iranian court sentenced Rasoulof to one year in prison and banned him from making films for two years on the charge of “propaganda against the system,” according to Human Rights Watch. Iranian authorities have previously arrested him multiple times and confiscated his passport because of his work, HRW said.

Additional reporting by Michael Rios

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