‘Exhausting and extremely dangerous’: Mohammad Rasoulof on his escape from Iran

Exclusive: The director of The Seed of the Sacred Fig details how he discarded electronic devices and fled over the mountains on foot after authorities sentenced him to eight years in prison and flogging

Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof escaped imminent imprisonment in Iran by discarding all trackable electronic devices and walking across a mountainous borderland on foot, the film-maker has told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.

But even though he has found shelter in Germany and is optimistic about attending next week’s Cannes premiere of the film that nearly saw him jailed for eight years, Rasoulof said he still expects to return to his home country “quite soon” and sit out his sentence.

Speaking ahead of the Cannes film festival premiere of The Seed of the Sacred Fig, the award-winning independent film-maker said his legal situation had left him with “no choice” but to leave the theocratic Islamic republic, because he was determined to continue telling the story of its people on film.

“My mission is to be able to convey the narratives of what is going on in Iran and the situation in which we are stuck as Iranians,” Rasoulof said in a video call from an undisclosed location in Germany. “This is something that I cannot do in prison.”

One of Iran’s leading living film-makers, Rasoulof has twice served time in Iranian jails, some of which in solitary confinement. He was sentenced for filming without a permit in 2010, and again in 2020 over his film A Man of Integrity, which Iranian authorities said amounted to “gathering and collusion against national security and of propaganda against the system”.

Having had his passport withdrawn in 2017, he was awarded the top prize at the 2020 Berlin festival in absentia, for his film There Is No Evil.

Paranoia and unrest … The Seed of the Sacred Fig will premiere in Cannes next week.
Paranoia and unrest … The Seed of the Sacred Fig will premiere in Cannes next week. Photograph: Run Way Pictures

Rasoulof’s latest, which is set to have its premiere in Cannes on 24 May, tells the story of an investigating judge grappling with paranoia amid political unrest in Tehran.

The west Asian republic saw large-scale protest against the clerical establishment that has ruled Iran since 1979 after the 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman detained for allegedly not properly wearing the Islamic headscarf.

By moving the focus of his latest films from Iran’s social system at large to the individuals who tighten the clamps of repression, Rasoulof said he knew he was set to receive a more punitive sentence than over previous films.

Prosecuting authorities accused him of making his film without obtaining a licence from the related authorities, alongside accusations that female actors were not applying hijab properly and were filmed without hijab, his lawyer Babak Paknia said in an email.

Involving imprisonment, a fine, the confiscation of property as well as a flogging punishment over bottles of wine police discovered during a raid on his apartment, the resulting sentence is the harshest yet handed out to the director in Iran.

“I wrote many projects when I was in prison, and I’ve always felt that if I go to prison for years, I won’t have the strength or the ability to make these films,” Rasoulof said. “So first I have to make them, and then after, it’s always time to go back and to go to prison.”

Mohammad Rasoulof and cast members Nasim Adabi, Mohammad Akhlaghirad, Soudabeh Beizaee in Cannes with 2017’s A Man of Integrity.
Mohammad Rasoulof and cast members Nasim Adabi, Mohammad Akhlaghirad, Soudabeh Beizaee in Cannes with 2017’s A Man of Integrity. Photograph: Stéphane Mahé/Reuters

“I have in mind the idea that I’ll be back quite soon, but I think that’s the case of all the Iranians who have left the country,” he added. “They all have a suitcase ready.”

Even though there was a four-month wait between his prison sentence being first announced by a Tehran court in January and it being sent to be executed this month, Rasoulof said he only had a window of a couple of hours in which he had to decide whether to stay in Iran or leave.

Upon a friend’s advice, he cut all communication via mobile phones or computers and headed to the border, crossing it on foot via a secret route. “It was a several-hour long, exhausting and extremely dangerous walk that I had to do with a guide,” Rasoulof recalled, speaking via an interpreter.

After the trek, he hid in a safe house. “I had to stay there quite long before they could transfer me to a town, and from there to a place where I could be in touch with German authorities.”

Cultural authorities in Germany helped confirm the film-maker’s identity and the country’s ministry of foreign affairs provided him with papers that enabled an onward journey to Europe. It was only upon his arrival in Germany that Rasoulof’s escape was made public by his lawyer.

Jafar Panahi.

Asked if the German foreign ministry had aided Rasoulof’s journey to Europe, a spokesperson said he could not comment on individual cases, adding: “The federal government isn’t going to ease up its efforts to support Iran’s brave civil society.”

Even though he remains passport-less, he said German and French authorities were currently in talks to allow him to travel to the film festival on the Côte d’Azur ahead of next Friday’s premiere of The Seed of the Sacred Fig, which is running in the main competition.

The reason why the Iranian state had gone to such lengths to crack down on his films, he said, was that “like any other dictatorship or totalitarian system, they want absolute control over images they don’t like that confront the reality of their own being and their own system”.

“They’re just trying to scare everyone and to push everyone out of any attempt to make films or express themselves or use their freedom just because of this illusion of control,” Rasoulof said. “And so my message to my peers, to other film-makers, is: there are ways.”


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