In the shadow of a crackdown in Iran this month on demonstrations by ordinary citizens against rising food prices, the authorities there also have gone after a widely celebrated sector of Iranian society: the filmmakers.
On May 10, as the food protests spread across the country, security forces went to the homes of Firouzeh Khosrovani and Mina Keshavarz, two internationally renowned documentary filmmakers, and arrested them, friends and rights activists said.
Around the same time, the homes of at least 10 other documentary filmmakers and producers were raided, with their mobile phones, laptops and hard drives confiscated, Iran’s three main guilds representing the cinema sector said in a statement.
Experts called it the largest crackdown on Iran’s cinema industry in recent years.
“We demand that this constant environment of fear and insecurity be lifted from the lives and work of our documentary filmmakers,” the guilds’ statement said.
Another well-known figure in Iran’s cinema industry, Reihane Taravati, who photographs celebrities and film sets, was also arrested, according to her friends and the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent advocacy group based in New York.
This past Tuesday, as movie stars and directors walked the Cannes red carpet in glittery dresses and tuxedos, Iran quietly released Ms. Khosrovani and Ms. Keshavarz pending a court hearing.
On Saturday, the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk, an organization that supports filmmakers facing political persecution, said Ms. Keshavarz and Ms. Khosravani had been banned from leaving the country for six months. “Such measures are dangerous, and such artists deserve to be treasured, not persecuted,” it said in a statement.
The Iranian authorities have not provided a reason for the crackdown, but analysts see it as a warning to the general population amid mounting discontent, and to documentary filmmakers in particular.
“It’s an intimidation tactic that is trying to send a message to other Iranians,” said Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, who focuses on Iran. “It’s also an ideological problem that the Islamic Republic has with these filmmakers.”
In recent weeks, street unrest over rising food prices has expanded to at least 20 Iranian cities, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported. Teachers’ unions and bus drivers’ unions have gone on strike, demanding better wages and overdue payments.
Security forces have clashed with protesters in several cities. Rights organizations have reported that at least two protesters were killed and that others were violently suppressed or arrested, including teachers, bus drivers, a prominent journalist, an academic and activists.
Two French nationals were also detained this month on accusations of having organized protests in Iran. Reporters Without Borders, a press-advocacy group based in Paris, said in a Twitter post from its Persian account last Monday that Iran’s intelligence agencies had summoned dozens of journalists in an attempt to scare them into silence.
The Iranian government has a fraught relationship with the country’s internationally acclaimed film industry, taking credit for its success abroad and yet trying to control its messaging and reach.
The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi was selected last month to be a member of the Cannes festival’s jury, and two films by Iranian directors, Saeed Roustaee and Ali Abbasi,are among the official selections.
Last Saturday, Mohammad Khazaei, the director of the Cinema Organization of Iran, a branch of the government that oversees cinema, said in a statement that the “presence in international events is one of the key parts of Iran’s national cinema,” but reiterated that only movies approved to be screened publicly in Iran could be submitted to foreign competitions.
Mr. Roustaee said in an email that his film, “Leila’s Brothers,” did not have screening permission from the Ministry of Culture in Iran and that government officials had reproached him for sending the film to Cannes without their approval. He said they also sent him a list of elements that had to be changed or censored to get the screening permit.
“I’m not going to give in to censorship,” he said, adding that the list targeted several of the movie’s most important and dramatic scenes. “I don’t want my film to be maimed.”
In the past several years, Iran has arrested or prosecuted prominent directors, such as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, on charges of creating propaganda against the government.
“Not only widespread censorship, but also the involvement of security agencies in the field of cinema, has reduced the job security of filmmakers to the lowest possible level,” read a letter signed by more than 50 filmmakers and actors and published on Mr. Rasoulof’s Instagram page after the recent crackdown.
Many Iranian filmmakers have still managed to strike a delicate balance to produce their work, using allegories and personal and intimate tales to describe the broader struggles that afflict Iranians.
“We know that the Iranian government has red lines that we must follow,” said Farzad Jafari, an Iranian filmmaker who is also a member of the guild. “We all know this, so we follow it.”
In Ms. Khosravani’s latest film, “Radiography of a Family,” which won the best feature documentary prize at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam in 2020, she explored the country’s tumultuous history through her parents’ relationship.
The film describes the impact of the 1979 Iranian revolution by focusing on the growing distance between her Western-leaning father and her religious mother, who became a loyal servant of the revolution that toppled the monarchy. Paintings, art objects and wine disappeared from her house, and music was turned down.
“This is my lifetime experience of being torn between two poles,” Ms. Khosrovani said in an interview in 2021 when her film was shown at New Directors/New Films, an annual festival in New York. “This dichotomy inside the house is the same as the dichotomy in our society.”
In Ms. Keshavarz’s film, “Braving the Waves,” she told the story of a woman from rural Iran who has set up a bazaar that employs hundreds of local women, which the local male officials want to tear down.
Ms. Khosravi and Ms. Keshavarz were released on bail after their families had provided property deeds as guarantees, their friends said, and none of the three women arrested have been formally charged. Mr. Jafari said the authorities had returned the equipment and hard drives of Ms. Khosrovani and Ms. Keshavarz but not the other items seized in the house raids.
While the arrests and raids spread anxiety among Iran’s creative arts community, Ahmad Kiarostami, the head of a festival of Iranian documentaries in the United States, said he doubted such repression could discourage Iranian documentary filmmakers, who have intentionally embraced a dangerous path with little financial reward.
“It’s almost impossible to make money from the films. They are doing it out of passion, it is pure love,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can stop this passion.”