Exiled in France since 2008, the Iranian actress received the prize for female interpretation at Cannes. A consecration for this rebellious artist, who dreams of making a film about her extraordinary destiny.
She shocked the Cannes Film Festival jury for her role in The Nights of Mashhad *, by Dane of Iranian origin Ali Abbasi. At 41, Zar Amir Ebrahimi plays a journalist investigating the murder of sixteen prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad. Little known in France, where she lives in exile, the Iranian actress is a legend in her own country. His Instagram page has nearly 500,000 subscribers. When she is on the move in Istanbul, Turkey, Iranian tourists who recognize her in the street bow down at her feet. And for good reason: she was the rising star of Iranian cinema, before a sextape scandal pushed her to flee Tehran to avoid prison. Her compatriots, fond of myths and poetry, compare her to the Phoenix rising from its ashes. Burned alive, able to get up. And to reveal yourself.
On video, The Nights of Mashhad, the teaser
Miss Figaro. – Did you expect to receive this award?
Zar Amir Ebrahimi. – I feel like I’m dreaming. If I look back – everything that happened to me in Iran, my years of exile in France, the difficulties also in making this film – it’s like a miracle. Especially since I was not destined to play the role for which I had the interpretation prize. When Ali Abbasi, the director, contacted me in 2018 to work on Nights of Mashhad, it’s as a casting director. I auditioned more than 300 people, including fifty actresses for this role. A fortnight before filming began in Jordan, the chosen actress, who lives in Tehran, panicked. She gave up flying for fear of being disturbed by the Islamic regime on her return. We were devastated. Ali looked at me and said, “Shall we try with you?”
A role that you immediately accepted?
Sure ! After four years of working on the preparations for the film, I felt like I knew this character by heart. It was not won in advance: my fragile appearance did not match the pugnacity of this reporter. But, after a few tries and script changes, Ali gave me the role. In addition, I knew the news item that inspired this fiction. It was in 2001. I lived in Tehran, and everyone was talking about these murders of prostitutes in Mashhad. The worst part is that some people endorsed the murderer! As an Iranian, this story speaks to me. Also as a woman. Violence against women is unfortunately universal. While documenting myself for this role, I also became aware of the sexual harassment suffered by journalists in Iran. I spoke with several of them. They recently made a clip to break this taboo. Today, it is important to speak. Cinema can contribute to this.
Is this story of harassment and humiliation a bit yours too?
In Iran, my life was shattered overnight because of a home video stolen from my laptop that went viral in 2006. I was in shock. A few months earlier, we had filmed ourselves having sex with my ex-boyfriend, and we thought we had erased this footage. We were young, innocent. Immediately, the threats began to rain down. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, where sex outside marriage is prohibited, my daily life has become hell. I was treated to the worst humiliations: virginity tests, summonses to the police, to court. They were violating my privacy by calling my friends to interrogate them. A friend was sentenced to ninety lashes for simply shaking my hand! My career was ruined: after my success in a very popular series, Nargess, I could no longer play in any film. I converted to editing, but they quickly annoyed my colleagues. I then started taking photos. But, the day of my exhibition, a guy came to sell DVDs of the video on the sidewalk opposite. Two days later, the police shut down the gallery. They wanted to prevent me from living, from breathing, pushing me to suicide. When I was summoned to my trial in early 2008, my lawyer and my parents convinced me to flee Iran. I risked too much, years in prison. France offered me asylum. I left reluctantly. I love my country. I never imagined becoming a refugee.
One hundred years of Iranian woman’s beauty in one minute
I was entitled to the worst humiliations: virginity tests, summonses to the police, to court
Zar Amir Ebrahim
A drama that you would like to adapt to the cinema one day?
As I said in my speech at Cannes, cinema saved me. I sincerely mean it. All these months of distress, living under surveillance, jumping from one summons to another, I held on, telling myself: one day, I’ll make a film of it. I had the impression of playing a role, of doubling myself. To survive was to lie: to my interrogators, one of whom constantly harassed me, to the judge, to whom I denied having made this video. During this time, I was conducting my own investigation: I wanted to know who had leaked these images. When I realized who it was, I went to see the judge. I said to him: “I have a lead. If you find this person, I will admit that it is me, in the video. “Once they arrested the person in charge (an Iranian actor, who has since died of cancer, Editor’s note), the judge called me back. And there, I completely denied everything again. I wanted to protect my parents, my family. Years later, in 2019, once my life was rebuilt in France, I was invited to an MBC channel show, in Persian, for the release of the film, Tomorrow we will be free, by Hossein Pourseifi, in which I played. The presenter asked me a question. And then it just came out. I unpacked everything. For the first time, I told everything in the smallest detail. It had the effect of a bomb. I received thousands of messages of support. Hatred, too. But I freed myself from a weight.
Fear, danger, exile…: notions that you have integrated from your childhood.
I was born in Tehran, two years after the revolution (1979) and the seizure of power by the clerics, and one year after the start of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). These upheavals are part of me. We lived from day to day, between life and death, laughter and tears. As a child, I learned the alphabet on television, because the school had to close for a year. Like all children, I liked this idea of staying at home. Just as I loved this game of hiding in the shelters, in the basement, as soon as the sirens announced a bombardment. But I will never forget the day when, in a fit of panic, I knocked over a girlfriend while running down the stairs. She broke both legs and I never saw her again. Even today, I carry this guilt. I also remember that evening when my cousins fled Iran forever, for fear of being drafted into the army. And then, we were under constant surveillance. Outside, the vice squad was prowling. As soon as we left the house, we had to talk as little as possible and veil ourselves. Once we were driving with my mother. For a minute, she took off her gloves. A police car passed. They arrested her accusing her of showing her nail polish. At the time, it traumatized me.
Have you always wanted to make movies?
I had the chance to bathe very small in the middle of the cinema. Pure coincidence. We lived in Tehran in the same building as the great director Hamid Samandarian and his wife, Homa Rusta, a film actress. Their son was my age. I spent a lot of time at their place, where I saw big names in theater and cinema. Very quickly, I wanted to be a director. Samandarian told me, “If you want to make movies, you have to know how to act first.” On his advice, I took acting classes at university. I played in a first film, never broadcast because of censorship. Then, I landed roles in television series that made me famous: Nargess, a sort of family drama, met with extraordinary success. On summer evenings, during its broadcast, people rushed home to not miss any episode. In the parks of Tehran, there were even outdoor screenings. I was at the peak of my career. I was about to start shooting a new movie. But the video scandal compromised everything.
A year ago I was a star in my country, and now I found myself babysitting with little girls pulling my hair.
Zar Amir Ebrahim
How was the integration in France?
With great difficulty! At first, I was very alone. I had to rebuild myself, start over, learn the language. I chained the jobs to survive. A year ago I was a star in my country, and now I found myself babysitting with little girls pulling my hair. One day, while I was working in a restaurant, an Iranian friend recognized me. He offered me to work for the cultural pages of a webzine he had just launched. Then I started collaborating with the BBC in Persian. In parallel, I played in a few films: tehran taboo, Bride Price vs Democracy…
In Iran, authorities have compared TheNights of Mashhadto satanic verses, of Salman Rushdie (at the time targeted by a fatwa). Did you expect such a severe reaction?
Since the Cannes Film Festival, everyone has been criticizing it: the Iranian Cinema Organization, which depends on the Ministry of Culture, the imam of Friday prayers in Mashhad, the pro-government media, not to mention the deluge of insults on social networks. They accuse the film of being biased, of giving a distorted image of Iranian society, of insulting Shiite Islam. But they base themselves on rumors and not on the film, which they haven’t even seen! The paradox is that there is nothing truer than this film, since it is inspired by a very real story that took place in Iran twenty years ago.
What will this price change for you?
I receive it as an encouragement to continue, for me, but also for other women, other artists, other exiles. Professionally, this will push me to be even more selective in my choices. I hope to be able to enroll in another cinema, beyond the roles of immigrant or foreigner that people tended to attribute to me. There, I’m about to leave for Australia, for a feature film by Iranian-born filmmaker Noora Niasari, co-produced by Cate Blanchett. It’s a tough but essential film about battered women, in which I play the main role. And, eventually, I have the dream of making my own film, inspired by my story.
*Released July 13.