Director Mohammad Rasoulof flees Iran ahead of Cannes premiere

FILE PHOTO: 70th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin

CANNES (Reuters) - Mohammad Rasoulof, a celebrated Iranian director whose latest film is competing in the Cannes Film Festival, has fled Iran after being sentenced to eight years in prison and flogging.

In a statement dated Sunday, Rasoulof said he was in an unspecified location in Europe. "I had to choose between prison and leaving Iran. With a heavy heart, I chose exile," it said.

Rasoulof said he made the decision after he learned about a month ago that his sentence had been confirmed.

"Knowing that the news of my new film would be revealed very soon, I knew that without a doubt, a new sentence would be added to these eight years," he said, according to the statement.

Rasoulof, whose passport was confiscated in September 2017, also criticized the scope and intensity of repression by Iranian authorities and called for the world cinema community to stand by filmmakers facing censorship and defend freedom of speech.

The announcement spurred speculation that Rasoulof may attend the premiere next Friday of "The Seed of The Sacred Fig."

Iranian authorities had pressured the Iranian director, who won the Berlin Film Festival's top award with his 2020 drama "There Is No Evil", to withdraw his film from Cannes, he said.

In a caption accompanying a short video of a mountain path on his Instagram, Rasoulof said he needed to work on the final technical stages of post-production of his film entry.

"I am thankful and indebted to friends, relatives, and individuals who, with kindness, selflessness, and at times risking themselves, aided me in crossing the border and reaching a safe haven in this arduous and lengthy journey," he wrote.

"I am alive to narrate it."

(This story has been refiled to remove an incorrect picture)

(Reporting by Miranda Murray and Hanna Rantala in Cannes and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by Bill Berkrot)