Iran steps up arrest of Iranian filmmakers

September 23, 2011

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The Kamran Shirdel film 'The Night It Rained' is about a boy who sets himself on fire to distract a train about to be derailed.

Wednesday, September 21, 1:30 pm: news arrives that at least six people were arrested in Iran, accused of a "cover-up to fulfill the needs of the British secret service in exchange for big sums of money." Iran’s Culture Minister called them subversives and enemies of the Islamic system. Those arrested include filmmakers Mohsen Shahmazdar, Haidi Afarideh, Naser Safarian, Shahnam Bazdar, Mojtaba Mir Tahmaseb and film sales agent Katayoun Shahabi.

Sadeq Saba, the head of BBC Persian, said that the people arrested have no connection with BBC Persian. They are independent filmmakers. The BBC has shown some of their films in the past, but none of the films were commissioned by the BBC.

The timing of the arrests may be linked to BBC Persian’s Saturday night broadcast about the rise to power of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Kmaneini. The broadcast was jammed inside Iran while the film was shown. None of the people arrested had any connection with this documentary.

I've personally known Katayoun Shahabi for over a dozen years. I first met her at a film festival in Tehran. In a small corner of the hotel's convention hall, she translated for me dialogues from the work of a lost and neglected filmmaker, Kamran Shirdel. During the 1960s, Shirdel made amazing documentaries about a women's prison; the life of prostitutes in Tehran's night district; and The Night It Rained — an unqualified masterpiece about a schoolboy who saves a train from derailment.  By depicting life under the Shah, Shirdel’s documentaries were banned. He’s worked in film only sporadically since the 1960s.

Shahabi eventually became an independent international film sales agent. She attended many festivals and championed the work of young feature and documentary filmmakers. Mohammad Rasoulof, himself sentenced to six years in prison, was one of Shahabi’s discoveries with films like Iron Island, Twilight, White Meadows and Goodbye.

Shahabi is a small woman, multi-lingual, forever adjusting her head scarf, and committed and passionate about the filmmakers and films she represents. Increasingly, filmmakers in Iran are censored and denied permission to make films. They’re told to re-cut films after completion, or risk being outright banned. The two Iranian films at this year's Cannes Film Festival were directed by Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. They were both sentenced to six years in prison. Their cases are on appeal. Both films were smuggled out of Iran, one supposedly inside a cake.

When I was at Cannes this year, Katayoun Shahabi told me that she was warned that if she displayed any posters or materials at the Cannes Market of films which were banned, Iran’s government would pull her business license.

Why this terrible repression of filmmakers, artists, journalists and intellectuals? Repressive regimes react this way, especially when in fear and under pressure. The most articulate voices, those capable of representing life as it really is, become the most dangerous. After the suppression of Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, the repression can only continue and grow.

According to Cine Foundation International, a British film and human rights organization, Katayoun is in Section 209 of Evin Prison, which is run by the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence. The organization says that "During the last years, many of Iran's political prisoners have died in this section under torture and many others kept it in have ended up being executed by firing squads or hanged."

Some years ago, when another Iranian filmmaker, Tahmineh Milani, was briefly arrested, I sent the news to the late Susan Sontag, who responded with a fax. She wrote, seemingly in magic marker, across the top of the page: “What is this latest atrocity?” Indeed.

 

Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multi-Media and film contributor for Worldview.