At the Montreal Film Festival last summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was serving as president of the international jury. Just a couple of days earlier, Panahi had enlisted fellow jury members into joining him in a protest against the disputed election in Iran and ongoing crackdown there by donning green scarves — green being the color of those opposing the Iranian government.
I asked him then if he feared retribution from the powers that be for this and other criticisms of the regime. Panahi declared that he had faith in “the power of cinema” to protect him from the wrath of the government. “They cannot easily face the people of cinema with impunity,” he said.
He will need that power and more after being detained earlier this month and placed in custody by Iranian security forces. Many of the people of cinema, though, have come to his aid, including the Boston Society of Film Critics (of which I am a member), which has issued this statement protesting his incarceration:
“The Boston Society of Film Critics (BSFC) would like to add its voice to the other critics and international groups calling for the release of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is being held in solitary confinement in an Iranian jail.
“Panahi, whose works include The White Balloon, Crimson Gold, The Circle, and Offside — films that illustrate the struggles of women and the poor in his native land — was incarcerated on March 1, 2010, and has yet to be charged.
“In an open letter, fellow Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) blamed the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture for Panahi’s ordeal. ‘He is paying for the conduct of officials who have for years closed all doors on him, leaving open small passages and dead-end paths.’
“The Federation of European Film Directors, the European Film Academy, the Toronto Film Critics Association, the Berlin Film Festival, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and others have already issued formal statements imploring the immediate release of Panahi.
“ ‘In a poll of our membership, the support for Panahi was unanimous,’ said Tom Meek, president of the BSFC. ‘It’s a travesty to see such a talented, award-winning director silenced for speaking the truth.’ ”
No stranger to persecution by the Iranian government, Panahi has seen many of his films refused distribution in his home country. Offside (2006), a gentle parable of women’s rights, so infuriated officials that he was banned from making any more films in Iran.
After the disputed presidential election last June, which kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office and sparked nationwide demonstrations and violent oppression by the authorities, Panahi sided with the defeated candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and made no secret of his disapproval of the regime.
Panahi was arrested on July 30, 2009, at a gathering mourning the death of Neda Agha Soltan, a woman who was shot by security forces during an anti-government demonstration and who became an international martyr for the Iranian uprising. He was released eight hours later.
But this seeming immunity from serious consequences to his outspoken criticism began to break down last February, when the Iranian government refused to let him travel to the Berlinale (the Berlin International Film Festival), where he again was supposed to serve on a jury.
Whether “the power of cinema,” as expressed in protests from the Boston Society of Film Critics and other groups and individuals, will have any effect on his current plight remains to be seen.
To add your voice of protest, visit petitiononline.com/FJP2310/petition.html.