EXCLUSIVE - Iranian filmmakers have warned of dubious financing spreading in the film industry.
A statement released by the Iranian Film Directors Association in mid- August said "suspicious funding" is endangering Iranian cinema.
"Massive amounts of money originating from unknown and often suspicious sources have been entering the Iranian film industry,” the statement read.
Though the association did not specify why the money is suspicious and dangerous, Radio Farda has interviewed several filmmakers who confirm the industry is awash in cash from unknown or suspicious sources. Some allege money laundering, corruption, and attempts to promote a political agenda by bank-rolling films in exchange for influence over the content.
Some of the new film investors are linked to politicians and government insiders who are said to have used their connections to take massive loans from Iran's troubled banks.
Filmmakers first started to talk about suspicious funding when Babak Zanjani began investing in films. Zanjani, who is now on death row after being convicted of embezzling government funds, has also been accused by critics outside the government of actually working with the regime by selling Iran’s oil illegally on the global market in contravention of international sanctions and moving the profits through a complicated maze of money laundering schemes. But he is also believed to have pocketed millions of dollars in the process, souring his secret deal with the government and leading to his arrest.
Zanjani invested in two movies and set up a filmmaking company that imported cinematography, film editing, and sound equipment, and was on his way to becoming a magnate in the Iranian film industry.
His movies were not popular, but a series called Shahrzad produced by two other investors who filmmakers consider suspicious because of their government connections, Mohamd Emami and Mohamad Hadi Razavi, became extremely popular and was distributed on DVD across the country.
Emami and Razavi spent unprecedented amounts of money paying hefty fees to actors. Razavi, who is the son-in-law of Iran's Minister of Industry, Mining, and Commerce, pulled out of the Shahrzad project and started producing movies on his own that often featured conservative content echoing Iranian hardliners' rhetoric.
Emami continued funding the series and purchased the affluent production company Tasvir Gostar Pasargadae. Some reports say he is in prison for his role in an embezzlement case at the Iranian Teachers’ Cooperative, but his company never stopped producing films.
The Pig is a critical account of the lifestyle of Iranian intellectuals, and Confiscation paints a dim picture of the Iranian opposition. Emami’s latest film, The Night of the Full Moon, dramatizes the arrest by Iranian intelligence of Baluchi insurgent Abdolmalek Rigi.
This kind of thematic tendency leads some to believe that these new investors are either entering the industry with an ideological agenda or are steered to use their influence with filmmakers to produce movies supporting the regime’s outlook, in one way or another.
Ehsan Rasoulof, whose father Jalal Rassoulof is a banker, Hamid Reza Aref, the son of former Vice-President Mohammad Reza Aref, Ali Hazrati, the son of prominent MP Elias Hazrati, and Abbas Naderan, the son of former hardline MP Elias Naderan, are among other investors whose money and motives are eyed suspiciously by Iranian filmmakers. Sajjad Alijani, a bitcoin dealer, is also said to be another investor.
While some filmmakers suspect money laundering, others say some well-connect individuals like to invest in films because they like to be associated with celebrities. However, both groups agree that that the activity of these investors has increased the cost of filmmaking and disturbed the balance in the sector. They say the new investors are willing to pay high salaries actors, making it difficult for smaller production companies to attract talent.
Film director Abolhassan Davoudi told Radio Farda that the volume of new investments in cinema is not high. "On the other hand," he added, "our colleagues in the film industry should also be blamed for accepting the money."
Nevertheless, he said, "Iranian cinema is too small an industry to be used as a vehicle for money laundering."
According to the business news website Eqtesad Online, the total production cost of Iran’s bestselling 2016 movie The Good, The Bad, the Obnoxious, was 2.72 billion tumans, roughly equal to $800,000 at the time. By comparison, the average cost of an Iranian film is 1.5 to 1.7 billion tumans.