Award-winning filmmaker flees Iran before Cannes Film Festival premiere

Mohammad Rasoulof escaped overland after being sentenced to eight years in prison last week

Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. AFP
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An award-winning Iranian director, whose film is showing at the Cannes Film Festival, has fled Iran, only days after being sentenced to eight years in prison on national security charges.

Mohammad Rasoulof, whose film Seed of the Sacred Fig is being considered for the highest prize at Cannes in France, said he had fled Iran overland as his passport had been seized in 2017.

His trial and conviction was seen by many as politically motivated.

In an Instagram post on Monday, Rasoulof said he is a resident of a "borderless, cultural Iran", who is against a regime that has intensified its oppression of dissent and prominent cultural figures in recent weeks.

Millions of Iranians are "impatiently waiting to bury you and your machine of oppression in the depths of history. Then like a coffin from that soil a new life will begin," he said, sharing a video of snowy mountain path from an undisclosed location.

It was not clear how he managed to flee from Iran.

On Tuesday, Rasoulof confirmed he had escaped to Europe after a "long and complicated journey," and said he was worried about the safety and well-being of colleagues still in Iran.

"The global film community must provide strong support to the makers of these films," he told AFP.

Last week, Iranian authorities sentenced Rasoulof to eight years in prison, flogging, and a fine after he was convicted of collusion and threatening national security.

Rights groups say the Iranian government often hands down national security charges to regime critics and dual nationals without providing any evidence.

Since 2010, Rasoulof has been repeatedly arrested and officially banned from making films. His previous work has strongly criticised Iran's record of human rights abuses, including its widespread use of the death penalty.

The film maker, who has had several works screened at Cannes, said he will now complete the last pro-production stages for his latest production. He thanked those who helped him escape.

His lawyer Babak Paknia said the nominated film's cast and crew had been summoned for questioning, barred from leaving Iran, and pressured to get Mr Rasoulof to remove the film from Cannes, where it is competing for the Palme D'Or.

"We are very happy and much relieved that Mohammad has safely arrived in Europe after a dangerous journey. We hope he will be able to attend the Cannes premiere," read a statement from the French distributors of his film.

Details of the film's plot and script have been kept secret to protect the cast and crew, they added.

It comes as Iranian authorities intensify their crackdown against critics, including popular musicians and actresses.

Rapper Toomaj Salehi was sentenced to death last month, despite international appeals for clemency. He was accused of joining the widespread Women, Life Freedom protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in morality police custody.

Mr Salehi, who has reportedly been blindfolded and tortured in jail, released several songs referencing the demonstrations and Ms Amini herself, the most notable saying "her only crime was her hair flowing in the wind."

His sentence came shortly after Shervin Hajipour was also sentenced to almost four years in prison for "propaganda" and encouraging protests.

His protest song, Baraye, which went viral and won a Grammy, referenced a long list of grievances against Tehran.

Prominent actresses have also been imprisoned for not wearing the hijab and supporting the 2022 protests, which posed the biggest domestic protests against the regime in its five-decade rule.

Iran has since executed several people for joining the demonstrations, putting to death a record number of people in recent months.

One person was executed every five hours in the last two weeks of April, the Iran Human Rights NGO warned.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 3:22 PM