VENICE – The Venice Film Festival on Wednesday expressed its solidarity with two film directors who have been recently imprisoned for political reasons, Mahnaz Mohammadi of Iran and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, by leaving two empty chairs during its opening press conference, in what has become a familiar form of awareness-raising protest on the international festival circuit.
Mohammadi, an Iranian director, actress and women’s rights activist, was arrested for the fourth time on June 7th when she began serving a five year sentence in Iran’s Evin Prison, on the outskirts of Tehran, on charges of “plotting against state security” and “propaganda” against the Iranian regime.
Mohammadi denies the charges which are purportedly prompted in part by allegations that she shot documentaries for the banned BBC Persian service and other Western outlets, and also worked for Al-Jazeera, besides her work on a docu about the disputed 2009 presidential elections that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the time claimed to have won.
“She is sick and unable to sustain the conditions of an Iranian jail,” said Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera. He added that, since June, Mohammadi’s jail sentence has been raised from five to seven years. “There is a high level of preoccupation for her health in the international film community,” Barbera underlined.
Sentsov, who is known for the 2011 drama “Gamer” about teens in computer clubs, was instead arrested by Russian FSB security forces in his house in Simferopol in Crimea on May 11 and taken to Moscow. On May 30, the FSB announced that Sentsov – who had actively opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, delivering food supplies to Ukrainian army troops trapped in their barracks – would be charged with planning to bomb two World War II monuments and setting fire to other buildings. Sentsov, who has also denied all charges and called them insulting, risks twenty years in jail.
Barbera said petitions initiated respectively by France’s Film Directors’ Guild for Mohammadi, and by the European Film Academy for Sentsov will soon be unified.