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Iranian filmmaker flees to Europe before Cannes premiere

CANNES, France (AP) — After being sentenced to eight years in prison, the award-winning Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof says he’s fled to Europe shortly ahead of the Cannes Film Festival premiere of his latest film.

“I arrived in Europe a few days ago after a long and complicated journey,” Rasoulof said in a statement dated Sunday and distributed by press agents Monday.

Last week, Rasoulof’s lawyer told The Associated Press that the director had been sentenced to eight years in prison, flogging and confiscation of property by the Islamic Republic. Rasoulof’s attorney, Babak Paknia, said the filmmaker was being punished for making films and signing statements.

Iranian authorities haven’t yet acknowledged Rasoulof’s sentence and there was no immediate comment on his departure. Rasoulof and other artists had co-signed a letter urging authorities to put down their weapons amid demonstrations over a 2022 building collapse that killed at least 29 people in the southwestern city of Abadan.

Rasoulof, 51, is the latest artist targeted in a widening crackdown on all dissent in Iran following years of mass protests, including over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini. His 2020 film “There Is No Evil” won the Golden Bear prize at Berlin in 2020.

Rasoulof said the prison sentence came before he revealed his latest film, “The Seed of the Sacred Fig.” That film premieres in competition in Cannes on May 24.

“Knowing that the news of my new film would be revealed very soon, I knew that without a doubt, a new sentence would be added to these eight years,” said Rasoulof. “I didn’t have much time to make a decision. I had to choose between prison and leaving Iran. With a heavy heart, I chose exile. The Islamic Republic confiscated my passport in September 2017. Therefore, I had to leave Iran secretly.”

Rasoulof said he strongly objected to his ruling but noted many others have been handed death sentences in the crackdown.

“The scope and intensity of repression has reached a point of brutality where people expect news of another heinous government crime every day,” said Rasoulof. “The criminal machine of the Islamic Republic is continuously and systematically violating human rights.”

Rasoulof is currently in an undisclosed location. It’s unclear if he will attend the Cannes premiere of his film.

“We are very happy and much relieved that Mohammad has safely arrived in Europe after a dangerous journey,” said Jean-Christophe Simon, chief executive of Films Boutique and Parallel45. “We hope he will be able to attend the Cannes premiere of ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’ in spite of all attempts to prevent him from being there in person.”

Shortly before the release of Rasoulof’s statement, Thierry Fremaux, Cannes’ artistic director, said “the real question is about his presence” when asked about the “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” in a pre-festival press conference Monday.

“The festival speaks through films,” said Fremaux. He described “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” as about “how insidiously the Iranian dictatorship creeps into families.”

Rasoulof also detailed the pressure put on his collaborators on the film. Some actors left Iran before wider awareness of the production, he said. Others have been interrogated and had their families summoned for questioning. Rasoulof said his cinematographer’s offices was raided.

“Many people helped to make this film,” he said. “My thoughts are with all of them, and I fear for their safety and well-being.”

Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof poses during a photo call for the film “The Immigrant” at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France on May 24, 2013. PHOTO: AP
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