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article imageOp-Ed: The Nightmare Story of Jafar Panahi

By Johnny Simpson     Apr 30, 2010 in World
The Jafar Panahi story is both Hollywood dream and Orwellian nightmare: an internationally renowned filmmaker and icon of Iranian cinema getting the Winston Smith treatment in Evin prison sans charges. Looks bad, but is a Hollywood ending being written?
For an internationally acclaimed filmmaker with twenty-five prestigious award wins and an additional seven lofty noms, life has been a very tough stretch at times for Jafar Panahi, the 49-year-old godfather and icon of Iranian New Wave cinema. Example. In April 2001, the esteemed Mr. Panahi was making a victory lap on the international film festival circuit with his Golden Lion-winning Dayereh (The Circle). While traveling enroute from the Hong Kong Film Festival to other film festivals in Montevideo and Buenos Aires he was stopped in an airport by customs agents, taken to an office for fingerprinting and photographing, and then arrested for indignantly refusing to comply. Mr. Panahi was then taken to a holding area and locked in chains to a dirty bench with other miserable detainees, all the while denied a single phone call. Ten hours would pass before customs finally released and bum-rushed Jafar onto a plane and out of the country.
It was a real nightmare as Mr. Panahi later described it, especially his heart-wrenching tale of the crying boy who deeply touched and upset everyone else chained up with him. In fact, Mr. Panahi was so outraged over the whole affair that he wrote an open letter to the People of the United States of America. It all took place during a stopover at JFK in New York, you see. Like I said. Tough stretch, and that's just in the Land of the Free! In Iran? Forget about it! First, he has to try to make a film, any film, with any kind of human meaning at all that will make it past the prying eyes and heavily censoring fingers of the Iranian regime's Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. Some have slipped through in the past, but all of Mr. Panahi's films are now banned in Iran. To put that scenario in its proper context, compare the regime's blackout of Mr. Panahi's films in Iran to the klieg-lit response of the outside film world:
* Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival, 2000.
* Silver Bear, Berlin Film Festival, 2006.
* Prix de la Camera d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, 1995.
* Prix du Jury - Un Certain Regard, Cannes Film Festival, 2003.
* Golden Leopard, Locarno International Film Festival, 1997.
* HIVOS Cinema Unlimited Award (2007)
* Podo Award, at Valdivia Film Festival (2007), for his life-time artistic accomplishments.
Mr. Panahi's international film festival work:
* President of the jury of Montreal World Film Festival (2009)
* President of the jury of Rotterdam Film Festival (2008)
* Chair of the Kerala International Film Festival Jury (2007)
* International Eurasia Film Festival (2007)
* Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (2001)
According to some reports online, Mr. Panahi has been under surveillance by the Islamist authorities in Iran for twenty years for being a major cultural thorn in the regime's side. It's not hard to understand why the various regimes in Iran have considered his films dangerous. Besides the purely wondrous and often gritty storytelling you'll find in his many award-winning movies, they contain basic human allegories that Iranians may feel most profoundly but that all people can understand with crystal clarity. The subversively humorous Offside, in which a group of young Iranian girls tries to make it past the men-only rule and into a big soccer game by hook or by crook. The troubling social implications for Iran are quite glaring.
But to paraphrase Mr. Panahi himself, "I cannot remain ignorant of that which goes on around me, or not be touched to express it in film." Here is a now-poignant two-part interview of Mr. Panahi at YouTube talking about the experience with his own daughter that inspired Offside, which won the Silver Bear at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival. So why, might you ask, was this most peaceful and artistically flourishing icon of Iranian cinema and major player on the world film stage arrested in a raid on his home without charge on March 1? Or given the Winston Smith treatment in Evin prison's notorious Section 209 for two months?
As with most heartbreaking tragedies involving innocent Iranian citizens and the Islamist Ahmadinejad regime in Iran today, you need only go back to last June's disputed presidential elections. If Mr. Panahi was a thorn in the side of the regime before the elections for his film work, he became a nail in the foot afterward for his outspoken opposition to the regime. Last July 30, Mr. Panahi was arrested with many other mourners at the grave of Neda Soltan, a solemn event the authorities responded to by lobbing tear gas. Released a few hours later after reportedly being warned by authorities, Mr. Panahi instead stepped up his opposition to the regime and support for the Greens. Last September, Mr. Panahi brazenly defied the regime as President of the 2009 Montreal Film Fest by making the closing ceremonies a Green rally.
As retribution and punishment for Montreal, Mr. Panahi's passport was revoked upon his return to Iran. He was also banned from traveling to this past February's Berlin Film Festival by invite, which the festival's organizers protested. Finally, On March 1, authorities raided Mr. Panahi's home in Tehran and arrested Jafar, his wife, daughter and sixteen others, among them fellow renowned director Mohammad Rasoulof. Security police also ransacked Mr. Panahi's home, seizing computers and other personal possessions. All have since been released from custody except Jafar. In early April Jafar's wife, Taherah Saeedi, was finally allowed to visit Jafar in solitary confinement in Evin prison after a month of not knowing Jafar's location or condition. What she discovered was most disturbing. Ms. Taeedi described Jafar, who is now confined in a very tiny cell from which he is occasionally dragged out for harsh interrogations, as pale and weak. According to Ms. Taheedi, an attending physician stated that Jafar has already suffered two major chest spasms and was in danger of a heart attack.
That was a month ago. To date, Mr. Panahi's dire situation in Evin prison remains both unchanged and perilous as the Islamist authorities try to break his spirit and his will. Jafar is resisting with Victor Laszlo-like fortitude, but at the high cost of his health. Fortunately, many loud voices in film and governments around the world are starting to make very big stinks on Jafar's behalf. Both the French and German foreign ministers have demanded Mr. Panahi's release. Many petitions for Mr. Panahi's release are now circulating online. The France-based Ruban Vert Group dedicated its upcoming Action1 Festival in Paris to Jafar by name. That festival runs from May 5-16, and will coincide with the May 12 start of Cannes.
Doing its part to draw attention to Mr. Panahi's desperate plight, Cannes has dedicated an empty jury chair in absentia to Mr. Panahi, a purely honorary but very powerful symbol. Many supporters around the world are now staging screenings of Mr. Panahi's award-winning films in solidarity with the imprisoned director. Overall, there has been a gradually rising tide of international coverage of Mr. Panahi based on increasing numbers of news reports from major media websites, Google search hits, and that very big empty jury chair at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, which looms larger as the grand opening nears. As things stand in the world today, the regime can ill afford to lose important allies like France and Germany, and Mr. Panahi is fast becoming a diplomatic sticking point for both.
The regime may yet give in if outside pressures grow too great, even today. If enough voices are raised in protest, the regime may grudgingly release Mr. Panahi to house arrest which, though not ideal, would be a stellar improvement over his current intolerable situation in solitary in Evin. Though Cannes festival organizers and the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may already be planning unified statements of support on Jafar's behalf to coincide with Cannes, you can contact both the Academy and Cannes, thank them for their support, and further encourage them to make unified statements for Jafar Panahi that the whole world will hear. International voices raised in outrage have already freed Roxana Saberi, Tahmineh Milani, Esha Momeni and Mehrnoushe Solouki in the past.
I for one am hoping for a Hollywood ending to The Jafar Panahi Story. And if that awesome achievement can be realized, I would next love to see a Hollywood ending to the story of the brave Mohammad Nourizad, a former regime filmmaker and now outspoken regime critic who was recently sentenced to 3-1/2 years in prison and fifty lashes for insulting President Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and ranking clerics in three letters he sent them all. Fifty lashes! He's an older man who's already weakened by nearly four months in solitary confinement. Floggings have killed much younger and stronger than he in Iran. Yet Mr. Nourizad stands like a lion despite it all. A man that eloquent has to be saved!
In bitter and deja vu-like remembrance, it was nearly a year ago today that I wrote at this very blog about the imprisoned Roxana Saberi going on a hunger strike after her eight-year sentence to Evin on trumped-up espionage charges. A year later I am writing about Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Nourizad, and they are just the most prominent in the Iranian public eye. Thousands more suffer in the shadows. As desperately as I now wish for happy endings to the Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Nourizad stories, I have wearied of having to report on so many human horror shows in Iran like theirs for so long. Perhaps the best Hollywood ending of all would not just involve the freeing of Mr. Panahi and all political prisoners like him, but all of Iran. That fairytale ending would even beat the Wizard of Oz!
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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