Exiled to France since 2008, the Iranian actress received the award for female interpretation in 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, Tsar 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 of her in her own country. Her Instagram page has nearly 500,000 subscribers. When she travels to Istanbul, Turkey, Iranian tourists who recognize her on the street bow at her feet. And for good reason: she was the rising star of Iranian cinema, before a sextape scandal prompted her to flee Tehran to avoid jail. Her compatriots, passionate about myths and poetry, compare her to the Phoenix rising from her ashes. Burned alive, able to get up. And to reveal you.

On video, The nights of Mashhad, the teaser

Miss Figaro. – Did you expect to receive this award?
Tsar 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 even in making this film – it’s like a miracle. Especially since I was not destined to play the role for which I had the award for interpretation. When Ali Abbasi, the director, contacted me in 2018 to work Nights of Mashhad, is as casting director. I auditioned over 300 people, including fifty actresses for this role. Fifteen days before filming began in Jordan, the chosen actress, who lives in Tehran, panicked. She stopped flying for fear of being disturbed by the Islamic regime upon her return. We have been devastated. Ali looked at me and said, “Shall we hit on you?”

A role that you immediately accepted?
Of course ! 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 frail appearance did not correspond to the combativeness of this journalist. But, after a few tries and changes to the script, Ali gave me the part. Also, I knew the news that inspired this fiction. It was 2001. I was living in Tehran and everyone was talking about these murders of prostitutes in Mashhad. The worst part is that some people approved of the killer! As an Iranian, this story speaks to me. Even as a woman. Violence against women is unfortunately universal. While documenting for this role, I also learned about the sexual harassment suffered by journalists in Iran. I have talked to many of them. They recently made a clip to break this taboo. Today it is important to talk. Cinema can contribute to this.

Is this story of harassment and humiliation a little bit yours too?
In Iran, my life fell apart overnight due to 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 thought we had deleted this footage. We were young, innocent. Immediately, the threats began to rain. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, where sex outside of marriage is prohibited, my daily life has become hell. I was treated to the worst humiliations: virginity tests, subpoenas to the police, to the court. They were violating my privacy by calling my friends for questioning. A friend was sentenced to ninety lashes for simply shaking my hand! My career was ruined: after success in a very popular series, Nargess, I could no longer act in any movie. I converted to editing, but they quickly annoyed my colleagues. I then started taking pictures. But, on the day of my show, a guy came to sell DVDs of the video on the sidewalk opposite. Two days later, the police closed the tunnel. They wanted to prevent me from living, from breathing, pushing me to suicide. When I was summoned to trial in early 2008, my lawyer and 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 beauty of the Iranian woman in one minute

I was entitled to the worst humiliations: virginity tests, subpoenas to the police, to the court

Tsar Amir Ebrahimi

A drama that one day you would like to adapt to the cinema?
As I said in my speech in Cannes, cinema saved me. I say this sincerely. In all these months of anguish, living under surveillance, jumping from one call to another, I held out and told myself: one day I will make a film of it. I felt like I was playing a role, doubling myself. To survive was to lie: to my interrogations, one of which 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 figured out who he was, I went to the judge. I told him: “I have a lead. If you find this person, I’ll admit it’s me, in the video. “Once the person responsible (an Iranian actor, who has since died of cancer, ed) was arrested, 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 I rebuilt my life in France, I was invited to a program on the MBC channel, 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 he just got out. I unpacked everything. For the first time, I have told everything in great detail. It had the effect of a bomb. I have received thousands of support messages. Hate too. But I got rid of a burden.

Fear, danger, exile…: notions that you have integrated since your childhood.
I was born in Tehran, two years after the revolution (1979) and the seizure of power by the religious, and one year after the start of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). These upheavals are part of me. We lived day by day, between life and death, between 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 bombing. But I’ll never forget the day I panicked and ran over a girl as I ran down the stairs. She broke both legs and I never saw her again. Even today I carry this sense of guilt. I also remember that evening when my cousins ​​fled Iran forever, for fear of being drafted into the army. Besides, we were under constant surveillance. Outside, the deputy squad was prowling. As soon as we left the house we had to talk as little as possible and veil ourselves. We were once 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 that time, she traumatized me.

Tsar Amir Ebrahimi in the film Nights of Mashhad Metropolitan Film Export

Have you always wanted to make films?
I had the opportunity to take a very small bathroom in the middle of the cinema. Pure coincidence. We lived in Tehran in the same building as the great director Hamid Samandrian and his wife, Homa Rusta, a film actress. Their son was my age. I spent a lot of time at their house, where I saw big names in theater and cinema. Very quickly, I wanted to be a director. Samandrian told me: “If you want to make films, you have to know how to act first.” On his advice, I took acting lessons at the university. I starred in a first film, which was never broadcast due to censorship. Then, I got roles in television series that made me famous: Nargess, a kind of family drama, was an extraordinary success. On summer evenings, during its broadcast, people rushed home so as not to miss any episodes. There were also outdoor screenings in the parks of Tehran. 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’ve found myself babysitting with little girls pulling my hair.

Tsar Amir Ebrahimi

How did integration go 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’ve 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 starred in some films: taboo of Tehran, Bride Price Against Democracy

In Iran, the authorities confronted TheNights of MashhadTo the satanic verses, by Salman Rushdie (then targeted by a fatwa). Did you expect such a serious reaction?
Everyone has criticized him since the Cannes Film Festival: 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 partial, of giving a distorted image of Iranian society, of insulting Shiite Islam. But they’re based on the rumors and not the movie, which they haven’t even seen! The paradox is that there is nothing truer than this film, as 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 sign up for 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 director Noora Niasari, co-produced by Cate Blanchett. It’s a tough but essential film about abused women, in which I play the lead role. And, in the end, I dream of making my own film, inspired by my story.

* Released July 13th.

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