By Babak Ghafoori Azar
February 22, 2020
Several movies screened at the Fajr Film Festival that marked the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran are found to have been funded by the Islamic Republic’s notorious Intelligence Organizations, Radio Farda’s investigation has found.
In one of the latest cases of Iranian intelligence organization’s increasing activities in the area of film production, the Intelligence Ministry has produced the movie “Zero Day” in Germany.
The crew that made the film partly in Berlin in January 2019 tried hard to keep their presence and activities in Germany secret. However, as some of the film crew sought political asylum in Germany, the secret spilled out into the public domain.
While the film was being screened at the festival in February, its director and executive producer Saeed Malekan said at a press conference that idea and plot for the film came from someone named Esfahani. He said it was based on the true story of how Iranian intelligence officers arrested an insurgent named Abdulmalek Rigi, a Baluch insurgent leader, by forcing the foreign airliner that was carrying him to a destination in Central Asia to land in Iran.
Three independent sources have told Radio Farda that the Intelligence Ministry provided information, documentations and funds to the film’s producer. Meanwhile, Malekan confirmed that Esfahani, a former high-ranking intelligence officer, was with the film crew while the film was being shot, although he did not accompany the crew in the trip to Berlin.
Esfahani, whose real name is Morteza Ghobbeh, is still actively involved in filmmaking for Iran’s intelligence organizations. He has also been involved in the production of a TV series directed by Feraydoun Jayrani as well as several movies including The Fox (directed by Behrouz Afkhami), Mina’s Choice (Kamal Tabrizi), Bodyguard (Ebrahim Hatamikia), Potassium Cyanide (Behrouz Shoaibi) Midday Adventures 1 and 2 (Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian) and When the Moon Was Full (Nargess Abyar).
All of these movies propagate the Islamic Republic’s official narrative about certain events such as espionage and the way the Islamic Republic treated the opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MeK). A search in the database of Iranian film industry revealed Esfahani was the screenwriter of over 30 mainly political movies during the past years.
His name also appears in the credits of movies made by renowned filmmaker Massoud Kimiaei. Despite his active involvement in the film industry Esfahani rarely speaks to the media.
Former political prisoner Iraj Mesdaqi told Radio Farda that Morteza Ghobbeh (Esfahani) was the chief of staff of Iran’s former deputy Intelligence Chief Saeed Emami, who is known for his involvement in the serial murders of Iranian intellectuals in the 1990s and for his suspicious death after his arrest. Ghobbeh’s image also appears in the leaked video of an interrogation related to the serial murders.
Esfahani’s boss Emami was interested in getting the Intelligence Ministry involved in filmmaking. It appears that several years after his death, Ghobeh revived his ideas and started the project once again. Meanwhile, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi confirmed in 1994 on the 30th anniversary of the Ministry’s establishment that the his Ministry is actively involved in filmmaking and other artistic activities. At the time he was talking about the movie “The Fox” with a story about clamping down on Israeli spies in Iran. Ghobbeh wrote the story, and Afkhami, a filmmaker close to the establishment directed it.
In an interview with conservative daily Sobh-e Now, Ghobeh introduced himself as a revolutionary guerrilla before the Islamic revolution and an intelligence officer working under militia leader Mostafa Chamran. He also said that he has made around 3,000 minutes of documentaries. He added that he has also worked with Hatamikia, another regime insider, on his film “In Purple” which was clearly about the activities of the Intelligence Ministry. Apart from writing the screenplay, Ghobbeh also offered consultation to Hatamikia and other filmmakers.
Farhad Tohidi, a renowned screenwriter who wrote the screenplay of Mina’s Choice with Ghobbeh, says Ghobeh was so powerful that he brought opposition Mojahedin (MEK) former operatives to the set to offer advice to the director.
Two informed sources active in the Iranian film industry have told Radio Farda that Ghobbeh follows and carries out the Intelligence Ministry’s projects through production companies trusted by the Ministry.
Zero Day is Ghobbeh’s and Intelligence Ministry’s second movie about the arrest of Baluchi insurgent Rigi. The first one was When the Moon Was Full directed by Nargess Abyar.Zero day is the first feature film directed by Malekan, a former makeup man. Malekan is also the executive producer, but it is not clear who provided the funds for the production. However, three independent sources told Radio Farda that the Intelligence Ministry paid for the film’s production.
Some 15 crew members went to Berlin to make the movie with Type-D multiple-entry Schengen visas issued by the German Embassy in Tehran. Some German-based Iranian filmmakers also helped the crew. The filming went ahead for three weeks in total secrecy. Two crew members were accused of wrongdoing after the crew’s camera disappeared and the duo sought political asylum in Germany fearing punishment in Tehran if they went back to Iran.
The films made by the Intelligence Ministry portray intelligence officers as heroes and the Iranian opposition as sinister terrorists. They never refer to the intelligence officers’ violent treatment of Iranian protesters.
Another main theme in the films made by Iran’s intelligence is demonizing the United States. They often portray the U.S. and Israel as supporters of terrorists. Oddly enough, a number of Iranian filmmakers living in the United States, often Green Card holders, are actively involved in making such movies.
Intelligence organizations’ activity in the area of filmmaking has increased under the Rouhani administration. However, other intelligence organizations such as the IRGC’s Intelligence are also actively involved in filmmaking and compete with Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry.