In December 2010, a court in the Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced filmmaker Jafar Panahi to six years in prison for collusion against the government. Even after his body is released from prison, the government wants to control his thoughts, his dreams, his words and prevent him from expressing them in cinematic form. The court also banned him from writing scripts, making films, traveling abroad, and speaking with any media for twenty years. “It’s depressing,” said director Martin Scorsese, “to imagine a society with so little faith in its own citizens that it feels compelled to lock up anyone with a contrary opinion. As filmmakers, we all need to stand up for Panahi.”
Indeed anyone interested in freedom of expression, anyone who believes the arts are central to the human experience, anyone who believes in justice should stand up for Panahi. And so on March 12, the Watson Institute at Brown University hosted a film screening and panel in solidarity with Jafar Panahi. The program was organized by Ben Hyman `11, who had done a project on gender in Panahi`s films in my undergraduate seminar on Gender, Empire, and Nation in the Middle East last term. On the first sunny Saturday of spring, a room full of Brown students watched Panahi’s debut feature film "The White Balloon" and engaged a panel that included myself, Ben, and Huss Banai, a Ph.D. candidate in politics.
The central drama of “The White Balloon”, whose script was written by famed filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, evolves around preparations for the Persian New Year’s. A little girl, Raziyeh, convinces her mother to let her buy a new goldfish for the traditional haftsin, but on her way to the store loses her money through the grates of a shop’s cellar well. Throughout the film, various passersby stop to help Raziyeh in her quest to retrieve the money. A Polish woman, a poor conscripted solider from Nishapur, a tailor who makes custom shirts, an Afghan refugee boy who sells balloons, and her brother whose cheek bears a bruise presumably delivered by their abusive father all conspire to help Raziyeh in her quest. Huss Banai pointed out that to Iranian viewers, the accented Persian of these various actors speaks to the ethnic diversity of Iran. Framing the film in a working class neighborhood shows the economic strains produced by Iran’s class dynamics.
Throughout “The White Balloon,” camera shots repeatedly show the 500 toman bill trapped between the metal bars of the grate. “Bars are a common visual device in Panahi’s films,” Ben observed. In his presentation, Ben showed clips from “Offside” and “The Circle” in which entire conversations take place between actors speaking through bars. “What makes Panahi dangerous,” Ben concluded, “is his films show places of constraint as places in which freedom and choice of some sort are ultimately possible.”
It is a heartbreaking irony that Panahi himself now faces life behind prison bars. But his confinement has shed a glaring light on the troubling fate of Iran’s culture workers. Last May, while Panahi was on hunger strike in prison awaiting his trial, he was awarded the Carrossee d’Or for lifetime achievement at the Cannes Film Festival. His seat on the jury was left empty in protest. Receiving her award as best actress, Juliette Binoche carried a sign with his name. Later at a press conference on “Certified Copy,” Kiarostami’s latest film that stars Binoche, the actress wept openly as a reporter asked about Panahi’s fate. “When a filmmaker—an artist—is imprisoned,” Kiarostami said, “It is art as a whole that is attacked.”
The scholar Hamid Dabashi wrote in The Guardian, “A spectre is haunting the Islamic Republic of Iran – the spectre of freedom... The sentence against Panahi is a national catastrophe for Iran, a global cause for denunciation, a disgrace to an already disgraceful regime, which knows no boundary.” Maziar Bahari, a journalist and filmmaker who was himself imprisoned by the Islamic Republic following the 2009 elections, spoke to NPR about Panahi’s sentence, “What the Iranian government likes artists do in Iran is to either listen to the directives and make propaganda films for them or just remain silent and do films that are irrelevant and don`t have to do anything with the social political situation in Iran.”
In February, Berlinale 2011 highlighted Panahi’s imprisonment on its opening night. Dedicating an empty seat at the film festival in his honor, Isabel Rosselini read from an eloquent open letter Panahi had written:
The world of the filmmaker is marked by the interplay between reality and imagination and creates a film that is a projection of his hopes and dreams. The reality is that I have been kept from making films for the past five years and am now officially sentenced to be deprived of this right for another twenty years, but I know I will keep turning dreams into films in my imagination. I admit as a socially conscious filmmaker I won’t be able to portray the daily problems and concerns of my people, but I won’t deny myself dreaming that after twenty years all these problems will be gone and I’ll be making films about peace and prosperity in my country when I get a chance to do so again. The reality is that they have deprived me from thinking and writing for twenty years, but they cannot keep me from dreaming that in twenty years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking...They have condemned me to twenty years of silence, yet in my dreams I scream for a time when we can tolerate each other, respect each other’s opinions and live for each other.
The director of the Sydney Film Festival, Clare Stewart visited Panahi in Tehran in March. He has been released from prison, pending his appeal. She reported that a tired Panahi retained a fighting spirit. In his hand, he twirled prayer beads he had fashioned from orange pits while in prison. A gesture perhaps that even in prison, Panahi creates, and even as he is released, he remains imprisoned.