Film lovers all over the world admire the many masterpieces of Iranian cinema. One of Iran’s most acclaimed film directors, Jafar Panahi, has won numerous awards including the coveted “Golden Lion” from the Venice Film Festival and he has been invited to this year’s Cannes Film Festival which opens tomorrow, 12 May. Unfortunately, the government of Iran seems to regard Mr. Panahi not as a great national treasure and source of pride but as a great danger, and has locked him up in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, without charge, for more than two months.
Jafar Panahi’s films have been described as “social realist” and often provide a critique of the treatment of women and other disadvantaged people in Iranian society. His first feature “Badkonake Sefid” (White Balloon) used non-professional actors to tell the ostensibly simple story of a small girl attempting to buy a goldfish for her family’s Nowruz (Iranian New Year) celebration. “Dayareh” (Circle), for which he won the Golden Lion, is a film comprised of interlocked tales about several socially marginalized women struggling through challenging circumstances that reveal the oppression of women. In “Talayeh Sorkh” (Crimson Gold) a Tehran pizza deliveryman gradually unravels as he encounters indifference and condescension. Mr. Panahi’s 2006 movie “Offside” combines humor with social criticism in a story about some girls who disguise themselves as boys so they can attend a soccer match, which is off-limits to female spectators.
Several of his films have been banned in Iran but are his films the reason for his imprisonment? The Iranian government has yet to charge him with any crime, although on 14 April 2010, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance said that Jafar Panahi had been arrested because he was making an anti-government film about the disputed presidential election of 2009. After a brief detention in July 2009 for having taken part in an event mourning the killing of post-election protester Neda Agha-Soltan, He was banned from travelling abroad, including to the 2009 Berlin Film Festival in which he was due to participate.
Perhaps he has been detained because of his political views? In addition to his film making, Jafar Panahi is also a peace activist who is a member of the National Peace Council in Iran, a group set up in July 2008 on the initiative of the Center for Human Rights Defenders, an NGO established by Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi and other prominent lawyers that was shut down by the government in December 2008. The National Peace Council has 85 representatives from different social and, ethnic groups and professions. Its aims are “creating and strengthening the basis for peace; preventing a military attack; abolishing the imposed sanctions and preventing any additional sanctions; ending the situation of ‘Neither war, Nor Peace.” Jafar Panahi had supported the opposition Green Movement and had appeared at international film festivals in 2009 wearing a green scarf.
Whether Mr. Panahi is sitting in prison because of his film making or because of his political views, or both, it is clear that he is yet another victim—albeit more prominent than most—of the current Iranian government’s evident mania for stamping out all dissenting voices who could even remotely be accused of stirring up unrest. Other film directors, including Mohammad Rasoulof and Mohammad Ali Shirzadi have also been arrested in the past several months in the Iranian government’s ferocious clampdown on multiple sectors of Iran’s society. Several of Iran’s most famous film makers, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi, have been essentially forced into exile because of their criticism of the government and expressions of solidarity with other targets of the current Iranian leadership.
The international film community has vociferously deplored the detention of Jafar Panahi. A large number of prominent film directors, actors and critics, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Michael Moore, and Ang Lee have called for Jafar Panahi’s release. Abbas Kiarostami, another highly regarded Iranian film director who has collaborated with Mr. Panahi on films, published an open letter in March protesting the detention of Mr. Panahi as well as film director, Mohammad Rasoulof, who has since been released. Their efforts on his behalf may not secure his release in time for him to appear at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but we must hope that they will remind the Iranian authorities that Iran’s great artists should be honored, not incarcerated.