“I will stand with the families of the prisoners and murdered and demand their rights.” — Taraneh Alidoosti

Taraneh Alidoosti, one of the most famous actresses in Iran, has been arrested. Nobody knows where she is. [UPDATE: It’s been confirmed by her father that she’s in Evin Prison. Where they put “political” prisoners. Where they put Jafar Panahi. Notorious for its its torture of prisoners. Bad bad place.] Her Instagram (where she had 8 million followers) has also vanished. Her last two posts were of 1. a photo of her standing in public without a headscarf, holding a sign that said, in the Kurdish language, “Women Life Freedom” and 2. a post condemning the first execution, that of Mohsen Shekari.

Her arrest is significant. As Jafar Panahi’s arrest is significant. This is not to say the arrests and torture and now executions of other non-celebrity protestors is not significant. But when the regime brazenly targets international figures – well-known and beloved in Iran and out – it shows they really don’t care about public opinion. Public outcry used to have an impact (it did back in 2011, when Panahi was released from prison. Yes, he was handed down a lifetime ban on making movies, and he no longer could leave Iran. But he wasn’t in prison. Yes, he was under house arrest. But he wasn’t in prison. This was all because international pressure got to be too much, and the regime decided it was a “bad look” for them. Or, I’m just guessing. Nobody in the regime is just going to come out and SAY that.) So now, with the arrest of Alidoosti in particular, the most high-profile target thus far, it shows they no longer give a fuck. In fact, arrests of these figures are used for symbolic reasons. If internationally known celebrities are not safe, then YOU – the plebe on the street – are not safe.

I followed Taraneh on Instagram. She often posted about what was going on in Iran. It was clear where she stood on all the important issues. What was different was she was doing so from within the borders of the country. So many of Alidoosti’s contemporaries have chosen to leave Iran, and live in exile. She stayed. Think about her having 8 million followers. Julia Roberts has 10 million. That’s how famous Taraneh is. I feel it’s important to underline, particularly for Western-focused people, or for people who don’t watch foreign films, or whatever. No judgment, but there are MASSIVE stars in the world who have never set foot in Hollywood. Alidoosti is one of them. The regime knew her arrest would make international news. Not only do they not care, the headlines are the point.

The public executions have begun. The regime appears to be executing mostly young handsome dynamic men (although hundreds have been killed in the protests. We’re talking about state-ordered executions now – probably in public. Choosing handsome young men – who share rap music on their social media, or videos of themselves rock climbing and being amazing and strong – is symbolic: We are cutting down the new generation. And I’m sure you’ve heard – and if you haven’t, then here it is – that it’s a crime in Iran to execute a virgin, and so young virgin women are raped in prison before execution. A 14-year-old girl was just tortured, raped, and killed, taken to the hospital (too late) with a “severe vaginal tear”. This is what this regime is. This is what they believe and how they act. Monstrous. Disgusting. A disgrace. Anyone who blabbers on about “reform” – and there are many of them – and the press parrots their talking points – is propping up THAT. You cannot reform a regime that rapes teenage girls before executing them. The regime is openly evil. What’s going on in Iran right now isn’t a “riot” or even a “protest”. It’s a revolution. Please try to recognize reality. Everything is moving into a very dangerous phase right now. These executed young men all came out in support of the “women, life, freedom” protests, which have continued unabated till this day. One of them basically put up traffic cones to block off the street where a protest was taking place. He was executed for this.

Alidoosti had been silent on her Instagram for months. I am sure she was going through a lot. People always criticize celebs for not “using their platform” to support/critique this or that cause. But that’s an outlook coming from privilege. For the people in Iran – and other countries living under tyranny – it’s a matter of life and death. There are very good reasons not to “use your platform”. Taraneh has a young child, loved ones. Not everyone is willing to literally DIE. This isn’t about losing the money from your relationship with Balenciaga. This is about losing your LIFE. So Alidoosti clearly did some soul-searching, and finally posted the picture above. Her brave act made headlines. That post alone got over 1 million views. I admit: I worried for her. My heart swelled with emotion at her bravery. That Instagram post meant she was willing to risk her life. A month later she put up a post condemning the first execution. Apparently she’s being charged with putting out false information and/or “fake news” about the executions, whatever, blah blah, tell it to someone who buys your bullshit.

Taraneh Alidoosti in her breakthrough role in 2002’s “I’m Taraneh, 15”, where she plays a teenage girl forced into marriage. The marriage breaks up after 4 months, the husband moves to Germany, and the girl finds herself pregnant with no husband. She decides – against enormous familial and social pressure – to have the baby and raise it herself.

Alidoosti has been doing steady excellent work in film and television for almost 20 years, sometimes in films which get international attention, particularly her collaborations with Asghar Farhadi (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly and the Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film, The Salesman). Any time she does anything she makes headlines. When The Salesman was nominated for Best Foreign Film, she made a public statement saying she would boycott the ceremony because of 45’s “travel ban”, i.e. Muslim ban, don’t get it twisted. She was pilloried for this by the usual suspects (what does it feel like to be so PREDICTABLE on a daily basis?) and celebrated in others. THIS is “using your platform”. She was just at the Cannes Film Festival in May of this year with her latest film, Leila’s Brothers (which I haven’t seen yet).

Taraneh Alidoosti and Houman Seyyedi, “Fireworks Wednesday”

I first discovered her when I saw Asghar Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007. (I reviewed for Slant). (Fireworks Wednesday was how I discovered Farhadi as well as Hediyeh Tehrani). I was so TAKEN with Alidoosti’s portrayal of a traditional woman, wearing a traditional chador (the chador becomes a plot point later), getting embroiled in the dissolution of a city-slicker couple’s marriage.(You could see this kind of dynamic operating in Farhadi’s international smash hit Oscar winner A Separation too, my review here.)

Taraneh Alidoosti, “Fireworks Wednesday”

There’s a mischievous glimmer in Alidootsi’s eyes, joy unfettered, open to life, but … you worry for her, too. She seems so innocent.

Since then I’ve been following her. Farhadi’s About Elly was made in 2009. I think it had a brief release over here, but if you didn’t see it then, you couldn’t see it at all. It never made it to DVD. For years I was unable to see it, and felt urgently I needed to see it – particularly after A Separation. About Elly was a Holy Grail kind of film for me since I had so loved Fireworks Wednesday and was bowled over by A Separation. Finally, after A Separation won Best Foreign Film – as well as every other award on the planet – About Elly came to America. I went to a screening of it with my friend Farran. She just reminded me that the screening was sold out, no room at the inn, and we somehow finagled our way in. We both felt the same: WE MUST SEE THIS. We have been thwarted for YEARS and this might be our only chance! We were absolutely STUNNED by About Elly (I wrote about it – at length – here).

About Elly

If Asghar Farhadi shot About Elly in 2008, then he followed it up with A Separation, released in 2011. By my count, that’s two stone-cold masterpieces back to back. I actually think About Elly is the superior film, and I say that thinking A Separation is as good as it gets.

About Elly (in which Alidoosti plays the title character) is not exactly a remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s eerie L’Avventura, but L’Avventura is its organizing principle and inspiration. Like A Bigger Splash is a “remake” of The Swimming Pool. It’s basically the same story as L’Avventura: A group of city-slickers go on a weekend vacation together. One of the women brings along her kids’ schoolteacher, a young woman named Elly. Elly is clearly from a more traditional background than the others. She has had to lie to her mother to let her go on this trip. Still. Elly relaxes into the big group, or at least tries to. They make her feel welcome, even though they gossip and whisper behind her back. It’s a weird vibe.

The murderer’s row of talented Iranian actors in About Elly, including Golshifteh Farahani, eventually “banned” from Iranian cinema for not wearing a head scarf on the red carpet. She now lives in exile. You’ll remember her from Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”

Undercurrents seethe in About Elly‘s first section. Beneath all the laughter and camaraderie are disturbing ebbs and flows. And then Elly vanishes. Seemingly off the face of the earth. What happened? Where is she? Is she lost in the crashing surf Just like the woman in L’Avventura? How can a person just VANISH without a trace?

Alidoosti is haunting in About Elly, mostly because she plays Elly’s joy and sense of possibility.

Taraneh Alidoosti, About Elly

She knows she’s risking trouble at home by going out – alone – with this group of less-than-traditional adults, none of whom are her family members. But she goes anyway. There’s maybe sort of kind of a possibility that this is a matchmaking trip, as well. There will be a single guy present (the to-die-for Shahab Hosseini, who was also in A Separation) and so maybe … possibly … if they get to know each other, something could happen? Elly is shy about this, but seems open to it, or at least her behavior is interpreted as open, but she’s troubled too. You can see shadows of uneasiness float across her face, but then she cracks a smile to cover it up. This woman is living under a very dangerous “regime” at home. You can feel it. Would they not allow her to marry a man of her own choosing? Would they be so scandalized at the thought of her just meeting a man by herself out there in the world that they would punish her, maybe even kill her? She never divulges any of this but it’s all on her face.

There’s a scene where Elly flies a kite, running up and down the beach.

Taraneh Alidoosti, About Elly

We don’t know Elly’s backstory here, we won’t know it until much later in the film. She’s an unknown. A blank. And yet she is the focus of this gossipy pushy group of friends. Taraneh Alidoosti has to SUGGEST what is going on without language. Elly’s uneasiness is palpable and yet time and time again it is either ignored or misunderstood. She’s so very alone. The friends are all giddy with their matchmaking, and although she seems open to it, she’s also uncomfortable with the feeling that so much focus is being put on her by this group of giggling adults she doesn’t know. Nobody notices. Or they interpret her behavior wrong. She’s “standoffish”. She’s “shy” (and in this group, that’s a bad thing). Farhadi’s stock-in-trade: humans’ misunderstanding each other as they try to read between the lines – and get everything wrong..

The flying the kite sequence is an example of a masterful symbiotic collaboration between director and actor. The filmmaking disturbs us and yet what we see is Elly shaking off her (as we learn later) considerable troubles and enjoying herself. But is she enjoying herself, really? Even her eventual whoops of exhilaration and triumphant giggles – the kite is airborne – have undercurrents of despair: her joy is struggling against something. Farhadi’s filmmaking in the kite sequence – the jagged handheld, where the and Elly is all you see, the camera struggling to even capture what is going on – is clearly front and center, the dominating force of the sequence, and therefore it may dominate the attention of the scene. It’s the kind of camera work that tells the story. Okay. But put that aside please and focus on what Alidoosti is playing, the levels that are present for the character. She’s so in sync with the camera’s energy and intention: she and the camera are one – and she is also one with what the scene will mean, ultimately, in the larger arc of the story. The first time you see it, you feel intensely worried and you don’t even know why. Alidoosti is not just playing joy and freedom, in order to “highlight” the loss that follows. No. That would be a cliche. Watch closely. She’s still a mystery to us here, but to an astute observer – as opposed to the group she’s with, all of whom have an agenda – she’s telling us everything. Layers of the onion are pulled back over the rest of the film and you learn just how much this young woman was dealing with. How much everything was costing her.

It’s the final moment she’s seen by anyone. She vanishes right afterwards.

And from that moment on she haunts the film like a condemning ghost.

Like Elly, Alidoosti has vanished. Or “been” vanished. Nobody saw her taken away from her house. This event has made headlines around the world. As it was designed to do.

In one of her final posts on Instagram, Alidoosti wrote:

“I do not have a passport or residence anywhere except Iran. I’ll stay and look you straight in the eyes like all these normal people when I scream for my rights. I’ve inherited this courage from the women of my land, who for years have been living their lives, every day with resistance. I will stay, I will not quit, I will stand with the families of the prisoners and murdered and demand their rights.”

Taraneh Alidoosti, The Salesman

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