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Iranian filmmakers escaping censorship at home find it has followed them abroad

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The U.N. says authorities in Iran are guilty of being involved in crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and rape. That's after September 2022, when Iran launched a brutal crackdown against demonstrators protesting the death of a young Kurdish Iranian girl - woman in police custody. Iran rejects the U.N.'s findings while continuing to arrest and imprison anyone speaking out about the crackdown. In Istanbul, NPR's Peter Kenyon met two filmmakers who made a movie about the protest and fled.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iranian film director Hamed Mosalaei lives in a modest apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Istanbul. He arrived in Turkey some six months ago, fleeing across the border with his producer and partner, Shabnam Alaei, when the movie they had just completed about the Woman, Life, Freedom movement began to be seen and talked about. He says he knew that his movie, which is titled "Hubun Or Trying To Be Useful," would mean leaving their homeland. But he also knew that sharing the story of the protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was too important to ignore, whatever the cost.

HAMED MOSALAEI: (Through interpreter) This movement was not just another thing that occurred in my life. If we want to talk about the phases of my life, it could be separated into childhood, adulthood and after Woman, Life, Freedom. So it has been a focal point of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUBUN OR TRYING TO BE USEFUL")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

KENYON: This theatrical trailer for the movie portrays the defiance of the demonstrators and the brutality of the crackdown in a somewhat abstract but chilling fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUBUN OR TRYING TO BE USEFUL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

KENYON: Mosalaei says their apartment in Tehran was very close to the demonstration area, and it soon became clear that the regime intended to crush any perceived resistance.

MOSALAEI: (Through interpreter) I want to tell you something. On the second night of Woman, Life, Freedom, I went outside to throw out the trash, and nearly 30 guys followed and shot at me. I had to run for my life, so it was clear that we had no choice. This battle had come into our lives, and we had to fight.

KENYON: Producer Shabnam Alaei says they both wanted the film to be seen in many countries, so they sent it to various film festivals. But she says to their surprise, they found festival organizers didn't show much enthusiasm, almost as if they were being asked to rehash an old story.

SHABNAM ALAEI: (Through interpreter) For example, we sent it to a festival in Berlin, and my distributor said because of the topic, it wasn't suitable. It seems this movement had an expiration date for some people, and some festivals find it out of date. It's led me to decide that it's not only the Islamic Republic that is suppressing our voices. In a way, it's the whole world.

KENYON: Here in Turkey, director Hamed Mosalaei says they found another surprise waiting for them. Getting anything slightly controversial made is effectively just as hard here as it was in Iran. He says in Iran, the suppression of independent voices is more blatant and out in the open, while in Turkey, he says, the process may be more subtle but achieves the same end. He adds that trying to make an Iranian film from outside the country is nearly impossible unless you have the support of a political faction or party, even if you approach the so-called independent film groups.

MOSALAEI: (Through interpreter) And if you're not connected to a faction or financially supported by one, it's difficult to get your voice heard. There's a group that's called the Independent Association of Iranian Filmmakers. We tried to reach them, but they ignored us. And now we know it's because they're connected to a certain party.

KENYON: Despite the obstacles, he keeps working on a new script in hopes that someday, somewhere an audience may see his work. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE XX'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.