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The Harvey Weinsteins of Iranian Cinema

November 24, 2017
Parvaneh Masoumi
8 min read
Sadaf Taherian, who left Iran two years ago, was one of the first actresses to come forward
Sadaf Taherian, who left Iran two years ago, was one of the first actresses to come forward
Iranian actor and producer Amin Tarokh defended sexually harassed actresses, but he himself stands accused
Iranian actor and producer Amin Tarokh defended sexually harassed actresses, but he himself stands accused
Iranians exposed Mohammad Reza Sharifinia as Iranian cinema’s Harvey Weinstein
Iranians exposed Mohammad Reza Sharifinia as Iranian cinema’s Harvey Weinstein

Since she began taking acting classes many years ago, she has appeared in a number of Iranian films. Reading about Harvey Weinstein and the long list of women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault has brought back her own memories of similar experiences. But she refuses to reveal her name when talking about her own account of sexual harassment. “I believe that our society is still not comfortable enough with talking about this subject. We [victims] will be found to be more guilty than those responsible.”

The actress' memories go back 10 years, during one of her first film projects. “When the director shouted ‘cut’ and we took a break, he always loitered around me,” she says. “He gave me meaningful looks and behaved suspiciously, but I pretended not to notice because I was afraid I would ruin my chances.”

The events happened backstage during the filming of a telemovie directed by Iranian Sirus Alvand. “This was one of my first roles,” she says. “Mr. Alvand talked a lot by using his hands. All the time he would tap me on my shoulder or put his hands around my shoulders. At first I thought it was just a habit of his. But then once when we were alone in the room he suddenly grabbed me from behind and said ‘you have a very good figure. You are tall and shapely. I always liked tall girls. Nahid is tall, too.’”

Nahid is the name of Alvand's wife. The actress says she released herself from the director’s embrace as carefully as possible. During the rest of the production she did her best not to be left alone with him. “I was the same age as his daughter Ahoo, who sometimes came backstage,” she says.

Praising “Airbags”

And this was not the only time. Many times, she says, she was offered a leading role in exchange for sexual favors. “We were at a party and Mr. Sharifinia [actor and director Mohammad Reza Sharifinia] was there, too,” she remembers. “He approached me and said, ‘I have a great role for you, provided you are flexible,’ and then smiled. I had a few meetings with him to talk and complete the contract. He was touching me all the time, but pretending that he was [accidentally] touching my breasts without noticing. Every time this happened, he would laugh and say, ‘What an airbag you’ve got!’ It drove me so mad that I refused to take the role, citing family problems as an excuse.”

After several female actors spoke out about sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, followed by the #MeToo campaign — when famous as well as ordinary women told their stories on Twitter on Facebook — many Iranians exposed Mohammad Reza Sharifinia as Iranian cinema’s Harvey Weinstein. These accusations have now been confirmed by many working in the industry.

Throughout the years, Sharifinia has worked as both an actor and a casting director for many important film projects. He has a checkered past. He was a member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization (which the Islamic Republic classifies as a terrorist organization), spent some time in prison, and was then released after he repented. Today, he is completely neutral politically. It is said that he has the same approach in cinema, as he has worked both with the Iranian “New Wave” director Dariush Mehrjui and with the conservative director and activist Masoud Dehnamaki.

“I was a friend of actress, director and producer Tina Pakravan,” says another woman I spoke to, who got her break in cinema through Mohammad Reza Sharifinia. “Tina had a dinner engagement with Mr. Sharifinia at a restaurant. When he arrived, the way he looked at me made me uncomfortable. He praised my face a lot and eventually asked me if I wanted to be an actress. I loved acting and immediately said yes.”

The actress later worked with Sharifinia on several projects. “He did not make inappropriate suggestions,” she says, “but he always tells sexual jokes and this makes one uncomfortable.” She gave one example: “We used to gather to eat lunch or something. Suddenly Mr. Sharifinia would tell an actress: ‘I am not eating. Do you want to eat mine?’ and then he would laugh loudly.”

Sadaf Taherian, a TV actress who left Iran in 2015, was one of the first to speak up about the improper offers that go on behind the scenes of Iranian cinema and TV. Last year, 30 married actresses wrote a letter to Asghar Pour-Mohammadi, who was then a vice president at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), and complained about moral corruption and sexual harassment in the industry. Some of them, including actresses Faghiheh Soltani and Parastoo Salehi, described in interviews how directors and producers had made improper advances toward them or made inappropriate suggestions. However, the letter failed to gain support from Iran's A-list actresses.

“We talked to some of these superstars and asked for their support,” said one of the actresses who signed the letter, “but we saw that they were starting to blame us for receiving such proposals.”

The Champion Stands Accused

The actress, who asked to remain anonymous, studied with actor and producer Amin Tarokh. “Amin defended our letter and talked about moral corruption in cinema. But this gentleman himself is one of those who made shameful proposals to many of his students in exchange for getting them parts.”

She was one of them. “One day he just came out and said, ‘a girl as pretty as you should become a superstar fast. If you take it easy and treat people around you a little kinder I’m sure you’ll be a success,’” she said. “Then he threw his arms around me and squeezed me hard.” She was engaged at the time. “It gave me such a bad feeling that I never went to his office ever again.”

Amin Tarokh has spoken out against sexual harassment in he industry.  “I know about a young woman who did not accept certain proposals,” he told Fars News Agency. “They put her aside even though she had a signed contract. When this happened she shaved her head and started talking about suicide.”

Another actress who has worked with both Amin Tarokh and Mohammad Reza Sharifinia described her experiences.“You come across such immoral proposals a lot in Iranian cinema,” she said. “Kissing without permission, touching and rubbing themselves against your body are by definition sexual harassment, but you can see a lot of it behind the scenes in Iranian cinema...Many actresses live with it. Some, like Sharifinia, have no qualms about proposing [inappropriate behavior].”

She talked about her part in a movie that was shot in the city of Kerman. The crew all stayed in the same hotel. One night Sharifinia sent her a text message: “If you want, come to my room tonight!”

In her last film, which was directed by Farzad Motamen, she says she stood up to his inappropriate behavior. But why don't superstars don’t do this? "Producers’ and directors’ behavior towards superstars who make money for them is different than it is toward newly arrived actresses,” she said. “Perhaps the superstars are immune because most young actresses who are newcomers receive fewer job offers and, as a result, they seem better targets for immoral proposals in exchange for roles.”

This actress also asked to remain anonymous. “Believe me,” she said, “my conscience feels guilty when I say these things because the conservative media write so much about moral corruption in the [Iranian] cinema that I feel I am toeing their line.”

Hardliners Get Moral

Not so long ago, the weekly newspaper Sobh-e Sadegh, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, published an article about the Sharifinia “mafia” in Iranian cinema, and about his immoral proposals to actresses in exchange for good roles. “In his most recent shameless act,” said the report, “Sharifinia, who as usual was the casting director for a movie, told the women who had registered for a part that they must get stark naked, walk in front of him and do certain movements. Some of those attending protested but some others abided by his dirty demands.”

None of the actresses IranWire talked to confirmed this allegation. “Sharifinia tells sexual jokes,” one actress told IranWire. “He might touch and grope someone or make indecent proposals but it is pure fabrication to say that he would explicitly tell an actress to get naked and walk in front of him.”

She says that such situations happen behind the scenes of the movies made by so-called “value” filmmakers, the men in the industry who claim that they believe in and strictly follow the values proclaimed by the Islamic Republic. “I had a part in Prophet Joseph,” the actress said, referring to a 2008 Iranian TV series. “One of the programmers was driving all the young actresses crazy. He publicly made improper offers, talked dirty and created a real havoc.”

Another actress with a part in The Outcast, a 2007 feature film by Masoud Dehnamaki, said, “Right in front of Dehnamaki, Sharifinia flirted with everybody, but Dehnamaki showed no reaction.” She also wanted to remain anonymous. “The moment that they hear these words they will all think that either we want to destroy Iranian cinema, or that everything is our own fault.”

She says that the men who carry out these violations in Iran never suffer any consequences. They get away with it. “In Hollywood the name of Harvey Weinstein has come up [in relation to] sexual harassment, so he will not go on working as before,” she says. “But do we see such a response in Iran? Today Kevin Spacey must say goodbye to acting, but with all the talk about Sharifinia, he gets more and more projects every day.”



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