Iranian director warns Turks: be careful

He directed his first short movie at the age of 18, with critics saying his style of filmmaking was unique as his approach to cinema was developed through his interest in examining the roots of radical life in society.

12 years and 15 films later, in October 2015, he was sentenced to 6 years in jail, 223 lashes and a fine of 20 million Rials ($600,000) simply because he refused to remove a 10-minute segment from his recent film “Writing on the City”, a 60-minute documentary about graffiti in Tehran.

The award-winning documentary has now been shown in many film festivals in different countries across the world. However, Keywan Karimi, a now-33-year-old Kurdish origin Iranian independent film director, has never been able to attend any of its screenings.

“I follow the real story behind things, I cannot just accept the official history that is being told,” Karimi said.

“I cannot tell lies. The most problematic part was that 10-minute segment about the 2009 Green Movement. Some people told me that I was crazy to release the film with it in. I am responsible for the history and not for the government. So, I choose to have that 10 minutes inside the film and as a result, I was inside a prison cell.”

keywan karimi
Keywan Karimi is speaking to his fans

Karimi spent one year in prison, with the rest of his sentence postponed due to the international outcry and pressure from all over the world. Now he is on probation and the remaining punishments can be administrated at any time if he does not “behave”. Which is why he cannot and does not give political interviews to journalists anymore.

On Jan. 15, 2018, for the first time in his life, Karimi is about to see one of his films on the big screen at a real cinema in Brussels. His eyes are filled with excitement. His shy and humble personality radiates optimism and courage.

Nowhere in Iran was this possible. Over there, his work is viral through the Internet and platforms like Telegram, a widely used encrypted messaging application. “I never saw people’s faces while they were watching my films, never knew how they felt and how they reacted in real life,” he says.

Karimi’s film is just a part of this year’s edition of “L'Heure d'Hiver”, a week focusing on Iranian cinema, specifically films from Tehran. So, with special permission from his country, Karimi came to Brussels to attend the screening. After the screening, Karimi was asked by the organiser to give a small speech and take a few questions from the mixed European audience, so he talks to the people in the theatre hall.

“No matter what, I will return to Iran and live in Iran” he says, when asked about asylum.

“If you are an artist doing art about your country, you should be in your country. The inspiration is very important. When you are far away from this inspiration you cannot make new rules and establish new ways to use this inspiration and achieve your goals.

“The truth is; there is a non-stop transfer between me and the society of Iran. They all give me pieces of information and I show them in a big mirror. I have some truly hardcore fans who follow everything I do. Why would I destroy this special relationship? I would not disappoint them. I do not want to leave Iran, I will stay in Iran and make new films in Iran.”

Karimi said that Iranian society was changing so fast that often the changes overtook his films.

“I am personally on the left of politics, so I focus on challenges and struggles of the poor, the underclass, the workers. I do not automatically assume that I will be in trouble for my work, because the lines of discussion and limits of expression are not clear in Iran. All these limits and lines are changing all the time. For example, my movie ‘Broken Border’ was about border smuggling between Iraq and Iran and this was a taboo subject 10 years ago, but I did it. Then it became OK to discuss it even on official media. Another film was about sentencing children to hanging. Then the law changed, and they limited it to the age of 18. All the last seven films I did are the same.

“Some subjects are difficult at the time I film them, but after some time they become safe and normal to talk about. I do not think my films had much effect on that outcome because my films are not screened in Iran, but maybe through the internet they had some indirect effect. In Iran the Internet is very powerful, more powerful than you would think.”  

Karimi explains that his message in the movie “Writing on the City” is that walls are like the skin of a city and the people that live in the city. He believes that graffiti is a symptom in the outer layer of the body. A sign that speaks about what is about to come if not enough attention is paid to it.

“Most people who watched my film in Iran told me that they look and see the walls differently now and that they see deeper things. They see them and they say ‘It is like a Keywan film’. That’s enough for me,” he said.

I have future projects on the matters of today but I’m leaving the documentary style, and from now on I will only direct fictional movies.”


Keywan Karimi
Speaking to his fans after his documentary has shown

Finally, as one of the viewers, I got to ask what he thinks about Turkey. What wisdom would he share with the Turkish directors and artists?

“If I am talking about cinema in Turkey, I have to say my hero is Yılmaz Güney,” he said. “I am living this life because of Yılmaz Güney. He won the Cannes prize but what happened to him at the end? He died far away from his people. Also, we know what happened to an artist like Ahmet Kaya. Last week I was in Paris and visited both their graves and paid my respects.

“Now some things are relatively better than the past in Turkey when it comes to the Kurdish situation, for example singing a Kurdish song is not a terrible thing anymore. However, with Erdoğan, I can not imagine how it is possible to remove Demirtaş, the leader of HDP and put him to jail or appoint trustees to Kurdish municipalities and detain Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakır...”

Could Turkey become like Iran?

“It is really dangerous and it could happen, yes,” Karimi replied.

“If Islamic groups day by day take control of every aspect of life in Turkey, why not? My advice to Turkish people is to be very careful in which way they choose to go.”