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IranSource June 10, 2024

The high price of dissident art in Iran: Silence or exile

By Shekufe Bar

“People of Iran are held hostage…I want to specifically talk about Toomaj Salehi, a singer who faces execution because of his artistic creation…do not allow the Islamic Republic to do this to its own people,” said Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof during his Cannes speech on May 25.

Just a week before his Cannes debut, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker fled Iran on foot after being handed an eight-year sentence and other judgments for clandestinely making his latest movie, The Seed of the Sacred Fig. That film, which defies mandatory hijab restrictions and uses the 2022 Women, Life, Freedom uprising as a backdrop, went on to win the Special Jury Prize at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

In recent weeks, the Iranian government’s unprecedented punitive measures against Rasoulof and dissident rapper Toomaj, as he is known to his followers, have ignited widespread controversy, sparking condemnations from civil rights and human rights bodies alike.

These recent decisions have set new precedents in the history of a regime notorious for its draconian punishments.


Rasoulof’s sentencing was the harshest ever imposed on a filmmaker in the history of the Islamic Republic, topping the six years given to fellow director Jafar Panahi. Meanwhile, the death sentence issued by Iran’s judiciary for Toomaj marks an unprecedented decision against a singer.

Open criticism of the regime is what both artists have in common.

To observers, the Islamic Republic’s generic enmity toward artists is now an open secret. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and his coterie firmly believed from the start that to cement theocratic governance, cultural reform is indispensable. Soon after, artists faced bans and expulsions over the “un-Islamic” nature of their profession and any open disapproval of the new order.  

The censorship hit the music and film communities particularly hard. Before the revolution, these industries had flourished in Iran’s liberal climate during the 1960s and 1970s under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

For more than four decades, artists in these fields have been under renewed pressure. At least two prominent directors died suspiciously: Kiyumars Pourahmad in April 2023 and Dariush Mehrjui and his spouse, Vahideh Mohammadifar, in October of the same year. There have also been reports of artists diagnosed with autoimmune diseases after prison release, such as actress Taraneh Alidoosti and filmmaker Mostafa al-Ahmad. Combined with the handing down of exceptionally long terms or capital punishment to artists in the past year, this translates into an anti-art revenge campaign in response to the Women, Life, Freedom uprising.

The sustained support from film-industry professionals and musicians during popular uprisings in Iran—notably during the disputed 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement and throughout the Women, Life, Freedom movement—has positioned artists and celebrities as a thorn in the side of the regime, something intelligence agents and authorities have shown they will not tolerate.

According to reformist newspaper Shargh, within just two months after the Women, Life, Freedom uprising kicked off in 2022, nearly one hundred artists were sentenced or banned from working and leaving the country because of comments in support of the protests and defiance of mandatory hijab rules.

In October 2023, the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture imposed acting bans on at least twenty prominent actresses, including Alidoosti, the star of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film The Salesman. The women had either posed without hijab on social media or openly supported the protests.

Exile and boycott

The Women, Life, Freedom uprising marked the culmination of a long-running regime face-off with artists, with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and intelligence authorities spearheading the confrontation.

The escalating repression has led to many artists choosing self-exile, with Rasoulof a recent example. Indeed, of the twenty-person ban list, nearly half now reside outside Iran. This trend is part of an ongoing exodus of artists fleeing widespread censorship since the 1979 revolution.

Many independent artists who remain in Iran have suspended their activities due to working bans or personal reluctance to engage in the current oppressive political climate, which has only gotten worse since the popular uprisings began in September 2022.

The artistic community’s concerted boycott of the state-sponsored Fajr Artistic Festivals—annually held by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to commemorate the anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution—over the past two years highlights that these artists might never return to the scene as long as stifling cultural policies and hijab restrictions remain.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Farhadi’s refusal to make a movie in Iran under mandatory hijab in cinema indicates this decisive shift. He revealed the decision in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde in early 2024.

Despite this, artistic productions have not come to a standstill in Iran. Pro-regime artists and those who have never questioned authorities continue to work.

Such projects are often funded by two major media producers in Iran: the state broadcaster known as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and the Owj Arts and Media Organization, the arts and production body of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). These state-owned entities currently monopolize hundreds of smaller media outlets and production firms, and also monitor the activities of independent media companies. IRIB and Owj productions are primarily used to spread regime propaganda.

The Owj Arts and Media Organization has strategically taken over Iran’s media-production landscape through an expanded and intricate network of connections with broadcaster IRIB and security and cultural authorities. With an estimated budget of $2 million in 2024, it funnels cultural money into various visual genres. High-profile and controversial Owj productions include the television spy series Gando, an Iranian version of the Israeli show Fauda, and musical theater Esfandiyar’s Seven Labors, based on the seminal Persian epic poem the Shahnameh.

Breaking free of long-standing taboos

Amid the boycotting of state-sponsored art by independent artists and the funneling of cultural budgets to state propaganda, a small yet burgeoning group of independent artists have pushed the boundaries of moviemaking from inside Iran.

Showing women without hijab and physical contact between men and women have been unbreakable taboos in post-revolution Iranian cinema. Yet, in the wake of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, a batch of Iranian movies—made inside Iran without observing mandatory hijab and other restrictions and without obtaining a license from the authorities—were screened at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, and received acclaim from Iranian and international audiences. Me, Maryam, the Children and 26 Others by Farshad Hashemi and Terrestrial Verses by Ali Agari and Alireza Khatami received overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Since then, other internationally acclaimed dramas, such as My Favorite Cake directed by Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha, and Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig, have openly traversed the Islamic Republic’s long-standing red lines and strict dress codes.

The homegrown push could be seen as an evolution of underground art, a method of creation long used to depict prohibited subjects within Iran. However, it has never been as public and transgressive as it has now become.

It could be argued that the independent artists’ intentional disengagement from all forms of state-related art, powered by the emergence of a new generation of taboo breakers in Iranian cinema, exposes the failure of regime strategies to threaten and impede Iran-based dissident artists.

Unsurprisingly, the Islamic Republic’s restrictive measures have only spurred Iranian artists to resist pressure, open radical fronts, and fundamentally subvert the ideological restrictions on artistic independence and creation that have been enforced since the 1979 revolution.

Shekufe Bar is a journalist who writes about art, culture, and society.

Further reading

Image: Setareh Maleki, Mohammad Rasoulof and Niousha Akhshi at the Closing Ceremony and Award Ceremony of the Festival de Cannes 2024 77 Cannes International Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals Cannes, 28 05 2024 Foto:xD.xBedrosianx/xFuturexImagex cannes_closing_4651No