Sundance-Bound Iranian Filmmakers Feel Chill Of Jafar Panahi Imprisonment

EXCLUSIVE: The Christmas holiday has so far made it difficult to rally a collective outcry from directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, who spoke out for Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi when he was first arrested. But two Iranian filmmakers who are debuting politically-charged films at next month’s Sundance Film Festival say that a groundswell of publicity and support from the international film community could play an important role for Panahi as he appeals yesterday’s harsh 6-year prison sentence and 20-year ban from filmmaking. Panahi and Muhammad Rasoulof both drew 6-year sentences from an oppressive regime that has cast a chill on Iranian filmmakers who want to tell honest stories.

“The support will help,” said Ali Samadii Ahadi, director of the documentary The Green Wave. “It is on us to make noise and create pressure so they will understand they have a duty to the Iranian population, to care about human rights and the rights of artists. Filmmakers like Jafar are the mirror of society, they reflect what you are doing that is right and wrong. That mirror has just been broken into pieces, and society loses so much. With Jafar, the Iranian government regime has sent a message. If you involve yourself in human rights issues, you will have to pay a high price for it. They said he was part of a demonstration and was making propaganda against the regime. He never acted against Iranian law, but they are using him to tell other filmmakers and journalists to shut up. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, within the last 17 months more journalists and filmmakers have been put in prison than in China, and more of them have received death sentences. China is a population of 1.5 billion while Iran is 70 million. This is a horrible development, and it shows the brutality of how this dictatorship works. The right to demonstration and freedom of speech is within the human law and the human rights charter, but they don’t care. If upheld, this sentence not only means the end of Jafar’s career, but also the end of film making in Iran completely. It this can do this to him, a very famous person, they will do it to any artist.”

Ahadi’s The Green Wave deals with the violent aftermath of last year’s presidential elections. A groundswell movement called Green Wave backed the candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and waged a real challenge to the regime of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Despite polls that predicted a new leader would be elected, Ahmadinejad was declared victor. What followed was a backlash of oppression and human rights violations. Some reports indicate that Panahi was arrested for joining protests against those killed in the election aftermath.

“The election forever change the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said Ahadi, who now lives in Germany. “I’m so sure that Iran can never go back to the situation before the election. But that wasn’t the question people were asking. It was, why are you killing me, why are you raping me just for asking what happened to my vote.” Ahadi said people were tortured for simply transmitting images through cell phones. He has used some of them in his film as well as other footage smuggled out of the country, and blogs written by Iranians trying to chronicle the madness. He is weighing distribution offers on the film before its premiere next month.

Another Iranian-born filmmaker bringing a film to Sundance and looking for distribution is Maryam Keshavarz, whose film Circumstance explores the complex relationship of two girls in Iran as they grapple with sexual rebellion and volatile adolescence. Because of the sexual overtones in the film, Keshavarz (a dual citizen of the US and Iran) set the film in Iran but shot it in Lebanon, because she didn’t think she would ever get it by the censors. “I wanted to work in Iran, but I worried about putting people in danger,” she said. “This film deals with sexuality, fanaticism and obsessions and I wanted to be sure the members of my filmmaking team would not be compromised. This is about a family, it’s not a political manifesto, but it deals with issues that are right now sensitive in Iran.”

She met Panahi at festivals and was shocked at the sentence he received: “It’s devastating to all us. We’re artists. What we say reflects on society and politics, but we need to be separate to do the work we do. He is not an obscure filmmaker, he has won prizes at Cannes, Berlin and other festivals. It is devastating to see such a symbol of Iranian filmmaking incarcerated, but it is vital for the international film community to support him. Even if he’s prohibited from making films from 20 years, they cannot stop his mind, or his writing.”

The high-profile directors who stood up for Panahi at Cannes–Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola–were scattered to the winds this week with the holidays approaching. Will fellow filmmakers rally in support? The clock is ticking as Panahi readies his appeal.

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