IRAN: Award-winning actress says she’s afraid of returning to the country, fearing repercussions

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She has starred in films banned by the Iranian authorities, played in a rock band and made it to Hollywood. This year, she plays one of the leading roles in the new Iranian film ‘About Elly,’ Iran’s official entry to the foreign category of the Academic Awards. At age 26, award-winning Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani is undoubtedly one of the Islamic Republic’s most famous cinematic exports, but the actress is afraid to return to her beloved homeland for fear of repercussions.

“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 said in a recent interview with the National, an English-language daily based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.


Having starred in tens of films since the late 1990s, Farahani now lives in Paris with her French-born husband, Amin Mahdavi, a film director. She sarcastically compares their life abroad to living like ‘gypsies,’ a stay that began in 2009 after Farahani’s role in Ridley Scott’s 2008 action spy flick, ‘Body of Lies.’

In the movie, she plays the Jordanian nurse Aisha, who comes to be the love interest of an American spy on a mission in the Middle East, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film marked the first time an Iranian actress starred in a Hollywood production since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

But the controversial plot and Farahani losing her veil in more than one scene in the film apparently brought her troubles with the Islamic Republic’s conservative film industry.

Around the release of the film, rumors surfaced about Farahani being banned from leaving Iran.

She confirmed those rumors in her interview with the National.

‘The rumor was right, but the timing was wrong,” she said. When she came back to Iran after she had finished shooting the film, she got her passport confiscated. “For seven months I didn’t say anything,” she added.

In October last year, Iranian news reports said Deputy Culture Minister for Cinematic Affairs Javad Shamaqdari insisted that Farahani’s travel ban had been lifted and that she could continue her work in Iran.

“There is no problem preventing Farahani from continuing her career in the country,’ said Amin Tarokh, the spokesman for Iran’s House of Cinema.

Judging from Farahani’s remarks to the National, however, it appears as if she doesn’t entirely believe those claims.

Farahani’s appearance in ‘Body of Lies’ was not the first time the actress starred in a film that was given a thumbs down by censors.

In 2000, she appeared in the Iranian film ‘Haft Parde’ (‘Seven Acts’), which was banned. In 2007, she played the wife of a drug addict in ‘Santouri’ (‘The Music Man’), which also did not make it past the censorship authorities.

But when it comes to censorship, it’s all about finding a way around it, Farahani said. As an Iranian artist, you get used to living with it.

“That’s how we live. 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,’ she said.

In her most recent movie, Farahani plays the role of Sepideh in Asghar Farhadi’s film on middle-class life in Iran, ‘About Elly,’ or ‘Darbareye Elly.’ The film has proved a success in Iran and been nominated for several awards in the country’s annual film festival.

Farahani’s interview comes as Tehran’s biggest cultural event of the year, the Fajr Film Festival, is hit by a string of cancellations and pullouts by foreign as well as local filmmakers and artists. Several of the foreign film and theater directors have openly stated that they’ve chosen not to attend the event because of pleas from a group of Iranian artists to boycott the festival in light of government crackdowns on the opposition.

Swedish film director and professor Hilda Hellwig recently joined the legions of foreign artists who have chosen to boycott the event. Scheduled to be on one of the jury panels in the festival, Hellwig told the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter that it was a ‘painful dilemma’ for her to take the decision, especially because she’s generally against boycotting art.

‘It’s really a painful moral dilemma. A theater festival of this kind in a dictatorship is a window to the world. ... I am in principle against boycotting art. Theater serves as a sanctuary and can play a crucial role in resistance movements ... [but] I cannot ignore that a number of international cultural figures also chose to boycott on the appeal of the Iranian colleagues,’ she told the paper.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut