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When film meets politics



“In a country like Iran that is a dictatorship, art is not only an intellectual or philosophical thing, it’s essential, it’s like oxygen,” Golshifteh Farahani

The Berlinale Film Festival

This year the 73rd international film festival took place from 16 to 26 of February in Berlin. It typically is a very political arena that leaves space for international emerging directors and artists amid the film landscape otherwise dominated by American streamers. As a result of the Berlinale's decision to boycott Iranian film institutions this year, Iran gained a prominent role at the festival through the films and documentaries of independent Iranian directors whose work highlighted the country’s struggle for freedom.

Protests on the red carpet

As protests in Iran continue, filmmakers and actors gathered on the Berlinale's red carpet on Saturday 18 to show solidarity with anti-government demonstrators in Iran. Several of the participants put up signs bearing the Kurdish revolutionary slogan "Jin, Jîyan, Azadî" (Woman, Life, Freedom) and chanted it while making victory signs. After the demonstration a panel discussion on the role of arts in Iran saw director Farzad Pak calling the government a "totalitarian regime where self expression is not allowed".

French-Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani who is serving on the jury for the top prizes with president Kristen Stewart, said as the festival kicked off Thursday that cinema was a crucial fuel for the freedom movement.

Iran takes the stage

This year more than ever the Festival has promoted the values of democracy and became a platform to exercise freedom of speech, freedom of expression and peaceful dialogue. The Berlinale allowed many artists who lost their voices in the turmoil of the government crisis to gather in Berlin and express solidarity with Iran.

With the ongoing protests in the country the animated feature “The Siren” fits well in the picture that the festival has tried to promote and brings a highlight to the struggles of filmmakers and artists in Iran. Film director Sepideh Farsi was only 16 when she was incarcerated in the country in 1980  for being an anti-Islamic Republic activist. She moved to France in 1984 and has been banned from re-entering the country ever since. Not only Farsi hopes to reach Iranians through her film but she also tells the story of the Iraq-Iran war from a new perspective. There is no right or wrong way or feel about the destruction that the conflict brought to both countries: there are no winners in this war.

The other most important highlight included, on the other hand, Tamadon’s  “My Worst Enemy” documentary, which exposed the brutal conditions in Iran’s jails as well as rampant executions.

The director tried to “shine a light on the violence perpetrated against the Iranian people” through an occidental platform such as the Berlinale. With the fundamental role of Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who steps into the role of an interrogator to challenge the director, “My Worst Enemy” depicts and denounces state interrogations techniques. Like Farsi, Ebrahimi fled the country after being arrested, interrogated and charged with making an obscene film by the Iranian judiciary, after a sex tape of hers was leaked.

The role of cinema in the Iranian Revolution

Amid the anti-government turmoil, many artists who take their side with the “Woman, Life, Freedom” -the largest women-led revolution in the world- pay a heavy price. In fact, Iranian authorities had already begun to target the country's cinema just a year after the ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi took office. The country experienced in 2022 what is considered the greatest crackdown on Iranian cinema in recent years, after the houses of two globally known documentary directors, Firouzeh Khosrovani and Mina Keshavarz, were raided by Iranian security agents, and they were arrested. After them it was the turn of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof who were charged with creating propaganda against the government, and in 2023 after the death of Masha Amini and artists showing solidarity with the protests, over 40 filmmakers have been put on trial for making movies.

Together with the government's repression of free speech, Iran’s nearly 50% inflation discourages people from investing in films, which further harms the country's film industry. Ahmad Kiarostami, the head of a festival of Iranian documentaries in the United States, said “it’s almost impossible to make money from the films. They are doing it out of passion, it is pure love,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can stop this passion.”

In an effort to limit the messages that the film industry conveys, the Iranian government allows only those films that have been approved to be streamed internationally. This censorship is exacerbated by the presence of security services in the film business. Many directors try not to give in to censorship: The director of "Leila's Brothers," Roustaee, claimed that the Iranian Ministry of Culture had not granted him permission to screen his film at the Cannes Festival in 2022 and that government officials sent him a list of changes that needed to be made to get the permit.

Since the start of protests, the killings and mass incarcerations, the Iranian film movement “New Wave”, which has always been driven by political agitation and repression, has played a fundamental role in reporting the fight for women’s rights and the anti-government revolution. Although the genre was created in the 1960s, it took on its present form with the 1979 revolution. New Wave directors started narrating the everyday lives of Iranians and incorporated into their conversations political comments on societal concerns. Neorealist films emphasize the symbolism of reality in a way that lets the characters slowly and poetically meditate on Iran’s actuality.

The most iconic movies of the movement, such as "The House Is Black (1963)" and "Taxi (2015)," convey a sociopolitical message that frequently led the government to criticizing the performers and directors. A human rights attorney named Sotoudeh, who played a role in "Taxi," was detained in 2018 on suspicion of “spying, spreading propaganda, and insulting Iran’s supreme leader.” She then received a sentence of 38 years in jail.

This is why today more than ever these filmmakers can be seen as truthful sources and can be relied upon by viewers. Iranian cinema provides an essential window into the historical struggle of people battling for their independence and rights under a brutal dictatorship.

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