Politics kill the box office

Of the six Iranian films in last year’s Berlinale Official Selection, it was the two pics selected for competition that garnered the most attention. Jafar Panahi’s “Offside” and Rafi Pitts’ “It’s Winter” drew critical acclaim, with Panahi’s blackly comic tale of Iranian girls trying to defy a ban on women attending soccer matches taking home the Silver Bear.

Rather than receiving a triumphant welcome in their native country, how-ever, both helmers have faced a rocky road to get local auds to see their movies.

More than a year after both films made their Iranian bows at the 2006 Fajr Film Fest, Pitts’ pic has finally been released on three screens in Tehran. Panahi is still awaiting an official permit to screen “Offside” to the Iranian public.

“Why has it taken so long? Because it always does here,” Pitts quips. “Even though we haven’t been allowed to do any publicity, we’re playing to packed houses. Sometimes you just have to rely on your powers of persuasion.”

Panahi’s appeals, on the other hand, appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Previous movies “The Circle” and “Crimson Gold” also were banned from theaters in the country, although local auds usually are able to bypass restrictions thanks to black-market DVDs and illegal satellite dishes. Even a letter from execs at pic’s U.S. distrib, Sony Pictures Classics, urging Iranian authorities to select “Offside” as the country’s official foreign-language Oscar entry was ignored.

Don’t feel too sorry for the helmer, though. “Jafar is my close friend,” says Tahmineh Milani, helmer of “Ceasefire,” the biggest-grossing Iranian film of last year. “Some Iranian directors get permission to make their movie, but then change their script and make a film for international festivals. They put something in that they know will be unacceptable for authorities here, but it helps make good advertising for them outside.”

Iran’s other big fest winner last year, Bahman Ghobadi, has suffered a fate similar to Panahi’s.

“Half Moon,” his tale of a Kurdish musician traveling from Iran to Iraq for one final concert, also has been nixed in the country despite winning the Golden Seashell at Spain’s San Sebastian fest.

Even worse, authorities appear to be rapping Ghobadi’s knuckles for having an outburst at the international fest where he decried their exhib restrictions. Helmer has been waiting four months for permission to begin his new project, but has yet to hear back.

“They still haven’t answered me. It’s terrible. I have to shoot the film in the winter, but now I will have to wait for another year before I can make it,” says Ghobadi.

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