An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
It all begins with a simple photograph on social media, an image that very quickly goes viral. It’s a photo of yet another actor or director who is fleeing in Iran to pursue their dreams and a better life abroad, to escape to a place that promotes creative freedom and where theater and film professionals are assured they can work without interference.
This mass exodus of movie and television stars and directors is, sadly, nothing new, dating back to the birth of the Islamic Republic itself. Recently, it has become a hot topic again, mainly because of social media and greater amounts of information being shared online. In fact, the free flow of information has in turn greatly accelerated the number of actors and directors leaving Iran, to the extent that it has become a considerable problem for the national broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), and for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Over the past few months, this wave of emigration has begun to worry officials, who refuse to accept that they are in any way responsible for it. But it is they who — rather than identifying the problem and solving it — have caused this war. Authorities clamp down on artists, and pick and choose who can and cannot appear on television. They issue strange and baffling directives and make unreasonable demands on artists. They block many actors from appearing on Iranian state-run television.
Iranian female actors are very much on the frontline of this battle. Shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, wearing the hijab became compulsory, and strict Islamic dress codes were enforced. This continues to affect women actors in Iran today. If they dare to do something controversial, such as reveal a strand of hair, post pictures of their private lives online or express an opinion, they are forced to answer to the courts or hardline media. It is therefore no wonder that some of these women have rebelled against the state-imposed hijab and the way they have been treated, and many have chosen to go abroad.
Numerous male directors and actors have joined their female counterparts in their protests against Iran’s restrictive cultural environment. Here, IranWire highlights the female actors who have made a stand, refusing to put up with the situation any longer. These women fall into two categories: those who left Iran when they were already famous and those who became famous once they left.
Susan Taslimi: Dreams of Returning
The last time Susan Taslimi made an appearance on an Iranian screen was in Bashu, the Little Stranger, a 1986 acclaimed film directed by Bahram Beizaie. At the time, nobody, included the director, had any idea that Taslimi was thinking of leaving the country. She left at the height of her career. She was the first Iranian female actress following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to appear in a non-Iranian film without a hijab.
On the eve of the Islamic revolution, Taslimi had been one of Iran’s most prominent cinema and theater stars and it was widely believed that she had a bright future ahead of her. But the revolution dashed many of her dreams and expectations. Critics of the Islamic Republic cultural policies believe that her melancholic looks and strong presence on camera unnerved the revolutionary clerics, which led them to target her. Not long afterwards, she became one of the first Iranian actresses to be banned from appearing on stage.
The ban was enforced while Taslimi was working at the Tehran City Theater, a center of avant-garde theater productions before the Iranian revolution. When the ban came into force, she took up a role as the theater's librarian. But the authorities remained dissatisfied, and so she was dismissed from this job as well. At this point, she was prohibited from entering the theater building at all.
Taslimi appeared in a number of films and television series, none of which could be screened in Iran. So, in 1987, she decided to try her luck in Europe and so quickly left Iran for Sweden. Taslimi began her acting career anew in Sweden, which proved a challenge for her. But she made a name for herself in 1991 with her one-woman portrayal of Euripides’ Medea in the Swedish city of Gothenburg.
“I feel like something is missing here and that’s my ability to perform for Iranian audiences,” Taslimi told BBC Persian in August 2010. “If Iran becomes a normal society one day, I see it as my duty and my desire to go back and pass on what I’ve learned to the next generation.”
Taslimi has lived in Sweden for nearly three decades now and remains active as both an actor and director. Altogether, she has directed four films and a TV series in Sweden.
Shabnam Tolouei: Forced into Exile
Shabnam Tolouei was forced into exile following pressure from the Islamic Ministry of Culture and Guidance, which tried to make her choose between her Baha’i faith and her career. However, she was unwilling to renounce her religion to save her career.
Tolouei learned filmmaking and acting at the Bagh-e Ferdows Film School in Tehran, but she was banned from higher education because she was a Baha’i. Despite this, she appeared in several plays directed by prominent theater directors, including Bahram Beizaie, Ali Rafiei and Pari Saberi, as well as in numerous films and television series. Later on, she directed a play entitled Bitter Coffee, during which she demonstrated her ability as a director as well as an actress. At the Tehran Fajr Theater Festival, she received many awards, including best actress and a second prize for directing Bitter Coffee.
But, eventually, being a Baha’i caught up with her. As she refused to renounce her faith, she was banned from working in theater or film. So, in 2004, she decided to move to France, where she studied at the University of Paris at Nanterre and received a BA in Theater Studies.
During her studies, she continued to work in the theatre and appeared on stages across cities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Several years later, she returned to the silver screen when she starred in the 2009 film Women Without Men, directed by Shirin Neshat. Neshat won best director for the film at the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion award.
Then in 2015, Tolouei made Dust, Flower, Flame, a documentary about the life of Tahereh Qurratu'l-Ayn, a 19th century female Baha’i poet who was killed for her faith. The poet was one of the first Iranian women to take off the hijab in the presence of men.
Zohreh Rahmat, Citizen Journalist, Tabriz
Next in the series: Zahra Amir Ebrahimi and Golshifteh Farahani