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Amid exile, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof premieres film at Cannes

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

One of Iran's leading filmmakers has been hiding in exile in Europe. Mohammad Rasoulof recently left Iran after being sentenced on national security charges. But as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, he was at the Cannes Film Festival today for the premiere of his latest movie.

(APPLAUSE)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Mohammad Rasoulof enjoyed a long, rapturous standing ovation at Cannes for his film "The Seed Of The Sacred Fig." It was a harrowing journey to get there. Last week on Instagram, Rasoulof posted a video of a snow-capped mountain on the Iranian border with his labored breaths in the background and a message condemning the Iranian government. He called out what he called a tyrannical and oppressive regime whose brutality has forced millions of Iranians to leave. From today, he wrote, I am a resident of cultural Iran.

Rasoulof's work has long criticized Iran's government, and for that, he's been sentenced to prison multiple times. It happened again before his premiere at Cannes. His lawyer posted on social media earlier this month that the filmmaker had been sentenced to eight years in prison, along with flogging and a fine. He wrote that was for signing statements and for making films with what the court claimed was the intention to commit crimes against the security of the country. Rasoulof wrote in a statement, I had to choose between prison and leaving Iran. With a heavy heart, I chose exile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: The 51-year-old filmmaker began making independent documentaries and features in the early 2000s. "The Twilight" was about prison life, and "The White Meadows" was an allegory about a man who collects people's tears. Professor Abbas Milani, who heads the Iranian studies department at Stanford University, says Mohammad Rasoulof is one of the most important Iranian filmmakers of the last decade.

ABBAS MILANI: He's certainly one of the most daring. He has gone from making films that were densely metaphoric but profoundly critical to making films that are directly critical of the status quo and willing to pay a very heavy price for it.

DEL BARCO: Like many other underground artists in Iran, Rasoulof has challenged the hardline regime for cracking down on dissenters and intellectuals and for ratcheting up violence against women.

MILANI: These are dark times in Iran. So his films showed this constant battle between the dark forces of oppression and the forces that want to liberate Iran.

DEL BARCO: Milani says filmmakers in Iran face heavy censorship and worse. The government has rarely granted Rasoulof a production license to shoot, so he's had to film in secret.

MILANI: Yeah. He's a really brave person. He has to hide somewhere. He has to be worried about the crew. He doesn't have freedom to shoot in any place that we want.

DEL BARCO: Producer Kaveh Farnam has collaborated with his friend on many films.

KAVEH FARNAM: First, you have to know that Rasoulof is not that much famous inside Iran. None of his films find permission for a screening. They never have chance to show his film in the cinema halls in Iran.

DEL BARCO: But Rasoulof's films did find international acclaim after being smuggled out of the country. In 2010, he and fellow director Jafar Panahi were arrested and banned from filmmaking for decades. The following year, Rasoulof won the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film "Goodbye." Then, in 2013, he wrote and directed a political thriller, "Manuscripts Don't Burn," a fictional tale inspired by real-life events of the late 1990s, when Iranian governmental security forces killed scores of intellectuals and activists. That film also won prizes at Cannes after overcoming many challenges, as he told the Associated Press through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAMMAD RASOULOF: (Through interpreter) From the moment the idea started germinating in my mind about this film, I knew that it is going to be almost mission impossible.

DEL BARCO: Rasoulof persisted, and in 2017, he made a film about corruption, "A Man Of Integrity," about a university professor turned goldfish farmer who refuses to bribe his way out of legal troubles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN OF INTEGRITY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).

DEL BARCO: Rasoulof told an audience at Stanford University the regime cracked down on him again after "A Man Of Integrity" was shown at Cannes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASOULOF: (Non-English language spoken).

DEL BARCO: They accused me of being a traitor, he said, and they demanded a lot of edits. When Rasoulof returned to Iran, he was arrested and prosecuted. His passport was confiscated. And he was barred from leaving the country. But he continued making films. His new film, "The Seed Of The Sacred Fig," is billed as a thriller about an investigating judge in Tehran's Revolutionary Court who deals with paranoia amid intense political protests. It's considered a frontrunner for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Neon has already bought the North American rights. Rasoulof told reporters that he hopes one day to return to Iran, but will continue to make films about his country from the outside for now. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.