'If I return to Iran, I won't be allowed to leave'

Feature Golshifteh Farahani stars in Iran's official entry, About Elly, to the Academy Awards but is afraid to return to her homeland. The actress talks to M about making films banned by authorities, her big break in Hollywood and her plans, and concerns, for the future.

Since August, Golshifteh Farahani has been living in Paris with her French-born husband, Amin Mahdavi.
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it's sad," says Golshifteh Farahani as we sit in the grounds of the Emirates Palace hotel, savouring some fresh air and a plate of fiddly canapés. She's referring to our proximity to her homeland. Iran lies tantalisingly close, just across the nearby waters of the Gulf which silently eavesdrops on our conversation in the background.

"Of course, it would be great to go back to Iran, but only if I knew I would be allowed to leave again. And if I knew I would be allowed to work. If I returned now I think I wouldn't be able to come out of Iran for at least two years. And I don't think I'd be allowed to work." Farahani, tall, slender and clad in a silky black suit offset with some rather eye-catching heels, is perhaps Iran's most famous acting export at the moment.

At 26, she has recently joined the legions of Iranian artists, musicians and filmmakers who have chosen or been forced to ply their trade outside their homeland. Since August 2009, she's been living in Paris with her French-born husband, Amin Mahdavi (a film director and producer), whom she married in 2003. "We're gypsies," she laughs. And it's all Sir Ridley Scott's fault. Body Of Lies didn't really set the world alight. Awash with earth-shattering explosions, hi-tech satellite communications wizardry and car chases through dusty Arabic settings, Scott's 2008 tale of espionage and terrorism in the Middle East - based on the book by David Ignatius - managed only a disappointing third position on the all-important scale of success, the US opening weekend box office. Beverly Hills Chihuahua, in which a handbag-sized pet escapes from an evil Dobermann in Mexico, took top spot.

For most of the lead names involved, Body Of Lies quickly became just another notch on their IMDB page. Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the fraught CIA operative caught in the middle of things, soon joined Kate Winslet for the rather depressing Revolutionary Road. Russell Crowe, the manipulative CIA boss, shed almost 30kg he had gained for the role before replacing Brad Pitt in the political thriller State Of Play.

But for Farahani, who played Aisha, DiCaprio's sceptical Jordanian nurse and suggested love interest, Body Of Lies changed everything. Not only did it make her the first Iran-based actor to have appeared in a Hollywood blockbuster since the 1979 revolution, but, because of the sensitive subject matter, it also made her a controversial figure with the Iranian authorities. Interestingly, her involvement in the film was a rare occasion in which both the Iranian and US governments shared a common interest.

"They were about to start shooting for Body Of Lies, but couldn't actually write me a contract because I was an Iranian living in Iran and because of the trade embargo," says Farahani. "Imagine that," she laughs. Eventually, it took the determination of Scott to sort out the situation. "Ridley really stood by me. If it weren't for him, it wouldn't have happened. His lawyers found a loophole whereby the contract could be transferred from Warner in the US to Warner in the UK." Farahani laughs again, finding the whole situation ridiculous. "It's funny, because the movie is talking exactly about this subject, that it's all just a misunderstanding."

Body Of Lies premiered in October 2008 in New York with the usual glittering star-studded fanfare. Farahani had the full red-carpet treatment, thrust before the standard line-up of microphones and cameras to heap the required gushings about working with Scott and alongside DiCaprio. But little did most people know that behind the scenes there had been a painful struggle between Farahani and the Iranian government about her being there in the first place.

Rumours surfaced in August - around the same time as the Body Of Lies trailer began to do the rounds - suggesting that because of the film, she'd been banned from leaving Iran. "The rumour was right, but the timing was wrong," she says. Her passport was actually confiscated in February, when she had returned to Iran after filming wrapped up. "For seven months I didn't say anything," she adds. The government accused Farahani of acting in the film without the permission of the Culture Ministry, and also of breaking Islamic law by appearing in several scenes without a hijab. Unable to leave Iran, Farahani missed out on a screen test for the lead role in Mike Newell's upcoming video game crossover, Prince Of Persia, another film that would have dramatically enhanced her international appeal. Eventually, on the grounds that they hadn't actually seen Body Of Lies before making these charges, the Iranian authorities handed her passport back and let Farahani attend the New York premiere. And she hasn't returned since. While the episode was clearly a tough one for Farahani, it wasn't the first time she'd managed to upset Iran's strict authorities with her choice of film. The daughter of actor and screenwriter Behzad Farahani, she was born into an artistic household in Tehran. Her elder sister, Shaghayegh Farahani, is also a film actress. Music had been her first love, and having learnt to play the piano from the age of five, she enrolled in music school at 12. She even formed an underground rock band - Nomads - with her brother. "When I was younger I used to listen to a lot of hard rock."

But it was 1998's Derakhte Golabi (The Pear Tree), written and directed by Dariush Mehrjui - commonly regarded as the intellectual icon of Iranian new wave cinema - that helped lay the foundations for a career in film. And, when she was just 14, it earned Farahani the first of many awards, taking a best actress nod at the Fajr International Film Festival, Iran's own annual Ministry of Culture-supervised celebration of cinema. In 2000, she starred in her second film, Haft Parde (Seven Acts). It was banned by the authorities. This would become a running theme across many of the 16 films she would make before Scott's call.

"That's how we live," she sighs. "You just have to find a way. You are a director and they've banned your movie, but you still do it. You go to a party and you don't know whether the police are going to come or not, but you still go. That's why Iranians are good survivors."

Some of Farahani's most celebrated roles have been marked with the censor's pen. In the multi-award-winning 2006 film Niwemang (Half Moon), directed by Bahman Ghobadi (whose latest film No One Knows About Persian Cats gathered international acclaim last year), she played the title role in a musical journey of discovery into Iraqi Kurdistan.

A year later, she reunited with Mehrjui to portray the wife of a drug-addicted musician in Santouri (The Music Man) ("playing the Santour" is a euphemism for injecting heroin). In 2008, it was the turn of another Iranian master of cinema, Abbas Kiarostami, to harness Farahani's talents for the curious Shirin, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival.

All these films were banned in Iran.

Farahani highlights the absurdity of the situation. "The cinema is subsidised by the government and yet they then ban the movies they helped produce. They always want to show that they are liberated, that there is art and artists, but we don't know what's going to happen once the film has finished. And we have all these different permissions. You need permission to make the movie, permission to show it in a festival, permission to show it to the public."

Recently, Iran's supreme ruler, Ayatollah Khamenei, and president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made further squeezes on the film industry, with announcements that Ahmadinejad himself would lead a new government body to supervise Iranian cinema. "Today, we see that the enemy is ambushing us culturally, and increasing the intensity of its attacks," Javad Shamaghdari, the deputy responsible for film at the Ministry of Culture and guidance, was quoted as saying in an Iranian news agency report.

Perhaps ironically, it's Farahani's most recent film - quite possibly the last she'll make in Iran in the foreseeable future - that has been the most well received in her homeland. Darbareye Elly (About Elly), directed by Asghar Farhadi, has Farahani playing the mischievous matchmaker Sepideh in a tragic story of love and deceit in middle-class Iran. Not only has About Elly achieved the unthinkable - escaping the censor's stamp - but it was nominated for 10 awards at the Fajr Festival, taking a Crystal Symorgh award for Best Director.

On the international film festival circuit, it proved just as successful. From earning a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, it went on to receive a best picture gong at New York's Tribeca, alongside further honours in Australia and India. Most notably, the film was selected as a nominee for the foreign language section at this year's Golden Globes (although it didn't make it to the final five), and has been selected as Iran's official choice for the foreign film section at the 82nd Academy Awards in March. Should About Elly go through to the last round of nominations and Farahani get the gold-enveloped invitation to Los Angeles, this time it shouldn't be quite such a headache getting to the US.

"Thank goodness that now I have French nationality and I'm not the 'Axis of Evil' any more," she sighs. Without the double force of an overly controlling government and a US embargo weighing on her shoulders, not only are Farahani's travel plans less complicated, but her fledgling international career is free to take off. But while starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in a thriller directed by Ridley Scott isn't the worse place to open your account, Farahani still feels there are various hurdles to overcome.

"The offers have been coming in, and that's good. But it's hard because from the beginning when I started this career I really wanted to choose what I was doing. In Iran I could do it. But in this industry, on this side of the world, it's a lot harder. I'm not in the position to be choosing the subject. "Also, I have to consider that as an Iranian actress I cannot do any movie and any part. It's not because of the government, but because of the people, the population of Iran, what they think and how they think. When you're coming from the Middle East, you're usually given the terrorist role. I'm not prepared to do anything that, to my point of view, is not the reality, is against the Muslim world or my country."

One script that clearly did tick all the right boxes was British director Roland Joffé's There Be Dragons. Set during the Spanish Civil War (although much of the film has been shot in Argentina), this period drama, which was written by Joffé himself, flirts with issues such as love, forgiveness and betrayal. "It's an interesting subject," says Farahani, who plays the girlfriend of a Spanish journalist attempting to mend relations with his dying father. It's also another chance for her to add an Oscar-friendly director to her roster, with Joffé's The Killing Fields and The Mission both nominated for Academy Awards. And it's another all-star cast, with Farahani joining rising faces such as Charlie Cox, Lily Cole, Wes Bentley and Rodrigo Santoro alongside old hands such as Derek Jacobi.

There Be Dragons is in post-production and due for release later this year, but in the meantime, Farahani has been returning to her musical roots. She recently teamed up with another art-exile, Moshen Namjoo - dubbed "Iran's Bob Dylan" - to record the album Oy (Persian for Ouch) in Venice. "Music is again becoming the first passion in my life," she says. "When I left Iran, I didn't have my piano. But now I'm experimenting with different instruments, like the didgeridoo."

Unfortunately, we don't have more time to ponder the art of Aboriginal folk music, for Farahani's husband is returning to us. I leave the couple to enjoy the Emirates Palace and the calm of the Gulf and contemplate her homeland not so far away.