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Escalating U.S. Pressure, Sanctions on Iran Take Toll on Its Film Industry

U.S. President Donald Trump’s escalating pressure on Iran is taking its toll on the country’s film industry, with production slowing down owing to the crippled economy and international sales of Iranian movies — especially to U.S. distributors — being hampered by sanctions.

“The economic situation is a disaster for independent cinema” in Iran, said Paris-based sales agent and producer Katayoon Shahabi, who is Iranian and was a member of the main Cannes jury three years ago.Inflation is slashing budgets and funding sources.”

The sanctions mean that “it’s basically impossible to sell to any country, not just to the U.S.,” she said, because for companies based in Iran, “you can’t receive any money.”

Shahabi’s Cannes slate this year includes Tehran-set drama “I’m Scared,” directed by veteran Iranian auteur Behnam Behzadi, who was in Un Certain Regard in 2016 with “Inversion.”

“I’m Scared” — which centers on a poet in Tehran contending with his girlfriend leaving the country and losing ownership of his shop in a society ruled by the rich and powerful — had a tough time getting made. In the midst of production last year, as sanctions bit and Iran’s currency plummeted in value, “the cost of crew and accommodations almost doubled,” said Shahabi, who produced the film.

“Shooting had started, and fortunately the actors, who had signed contracts, did not ask for a raise,” because Behzadi is an important director, Shahabi said. But the budget rose from about $550,000 to $780,000. “If he had started production now, he would not have been able to complete it.”  

As for U.S. distributors, “companies that work with Iranians are penalized, so they don’t want to take any risks,” she said. And “it’s practically impossible for Iranian directors to attend U.S. film festivals, awards or promotional events.”

Tehran-based international distributor Mohammad Attebai said that companies like his Iranian Independents must use workarounds. “Anybody in this business has to have a bank account or a company outside Iran,” he said. “Otherwise, simply you can’t sell movies, or even pay for your expenses while attending markets.”

In Cannes, Attebai has signed a deal with France’s Wild Bunch for French rights to Iranian actioner “Just 6.5,” about a tough narcotics cop, played by Payman Maadi (“A Separation”), squaring off with a drug-trafficking kingpin. The fast-paced thriller denounces the damage caused by illegal drugs in Iran, and is being touted as the country’s all-time highest-grossing film domestically, barring comedies.

Attebai, who is the Iranian cinema consultant for the Venice and Tallinn Black Nights film festivals, said U.S. sanctions on the Iranian economy had prompted a 31% drop in film production from 169 features in 2017 to 116 features last year. “This is the first clear impact of the sanctions that we can see,” he said, adding that both public and private funding have diminished.

Attebai also said that “a lot of young filmmakers in Iran think that political sanctions are making it harder for Iranian films to be selected for major international film festivals.” Though he doesn’t personally believe this to be the case, he said the sanctions can have an indirect negative effect because festival selection committees are concerned about whether titles that make the cut will be picked up by distributors and have promotional muscle behind them.

For directors such as Jafar Panahi, who is known to be a dissident, sanctions are not a problem, Attebai said. Panahi’s “3 Faces,” which won the best screenplay prize at Cannes last year, was the country’s biggest cinematic export, selling to Kino Lorber in the U.S.

Nor have the sanctions had an adverse impact on upper-echelon Iranian filmmakers such as double-Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, though the Trump travel ban got in the way of Farhadi attending the 2017 Oscar ceremony, where his film “The Salesman” won.

“Filmmakers continue to work as they always did,” said Iranian actor Babak Karimi, who appears in “The Salesman” and several other Farhadi films and is a close friend of the auteur. “We are so used to living in instability and uncertainty.”

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