Artistic Freedom Constrained: Iranian Director Roustayi Receives Prison Term

Artistic Freedom Constrained: Iranian Director Roustayi Receives Prison Term
Photo by Kaethe17, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https> via Wikimedia Commons


Bilge Ece Zeyrek

Middle East and Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

Iranian director Saeed Roustayi, acclaimed for his film “Leila’s Brothers” has been sentenced to six months of imprisonment for submitting the movie to the Cannes Film Festival last year without official permission and allegedly featuring propaganda against the regime. [1] In a cross-border show of support, renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese started the Justice for Roustayi campaign on through his daughter. [2] The campaign quickly gathered thirty thousand signatures, highlighting global solidarity against the verdict and emphasising the universal importance of artistic freedom.

The verdict against Roustayi was strongly criticised by the Cannes Film Festival organisers, who viewed it as a significant encroachment on the freedom of expression for Iranian artists, filmmakers, producers, and technicians. [3] They further conveyed their backing for those who endure violence and consequences for their creative output, highlighting that the Cannes Festival stands in solidarity with such individuals. [4]

Roustayi will serve a 9-day jail term, with the remaining sentence suspended for five years, during which he must abstain from any activity associated with the alleged crime and sever connections with filmmaking professionals. [5] In addition to these bans, Roustayi is required to successfully complete a special curriculum on “filmmaking while preserving national and ethical interests” at the university of state television. [6]

Roustayi faced restrictions last year as well. The director’s 2022 film “Leila’s Brothers” was banned from theatres by the Iranian Cinema Organization, and its release licence was denied due to the director’s failure to consult the government on the film’s content. [7] The film, which received the Citizen’s Award and the Prix FIPRESCI, chosen by The International Federation of Film Critics, portrays a family grappling with debt and the challenges of Iran’s economic crisis and sanctions, shedding light on the enduring patriarchal norms in Iranian society. [8]

Regrettably, Roustayi is far from the only artist facing the regime’s attempts to suppress creative expression. Numerous individuals in Iran’s cinema, theatre, and music sectors have faced work bans and travel limitations due to their support of anti-government protests that arose in September 2022. [9] This is a stark example that in Iran, the assurance of freedom for speech and thought remains uncertain. The regime’s strategy of criminalising such actions serves to uphold its prevailing position and hinder societal transformation. Furthermore, the suppression and punishment of well-known artists could also serve as a method to instil fear within society. However, even amidst these challenges, activists and individuals committed to driving change in Iran will continue to demonstrate remarkable resilience.

Sources and further reading

[1] The Arab Weekly, ‘International solidarity with Iranian film director Roustaee after jail sentence’ (18 August 2023) <> accessed 23 August 2023.

[2] Francesca Scorsese, ‘Justice for Iranian filmmaker Saeed Roustayi’ (16 August 2023) <> accessed 23 August 2023.

[3] The Arab Weekly (no 1).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Iran International, ‘Iran Sentences Prominent Filmmaker to Six Months In Prison’ (15 August 2023) <> accessed 23 August 2023.

[7] IranWire, ‘Film 'Leila's Brothers' Banned in Iran’ (20 June 2022) <> accessed 23 August 2023.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Iran International, ‘Islamic Republic Intensifying Crackdown On Filmmakers, Artists’ (15 November 2022) <> accessed 23 August 2023.