The international film community’s rally in support of Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, both sentenced to six-year prison terms for “propaganda against the system,” may be having some effect.
Which is all the more reason not to ease up the effort, say those close to the situation.
Following the proliferation of petitions outside Iran and widespread solidarity from film festivals around the world, including Cannes and Berlin, there are also some possibly encouraging signs from officials inside Iran, where local filmmakers’ orgs have issued letters protesting the sentence.
The semi-official Fars news agency reported in late January that a close aid to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Ahmadinejad himself opposes the ruling.
Iran’s opposition Green movement recently ran a photo, without commentary, on its website of a dejected-looking Panahi attending a ceremony on Jan. 22 at Tehran’s House of Artists, sitting next to fellow helmer, and friend, Abbas Kiarostami.
“It’s a complicated situation for the Iranian government,” says Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who has been among the most active supporters of the Panahi cause.
“It’s very important that people all over the world keep voicing their protests.”
Fremaux was among the first to get an online petition going after news of the Dec. 20 sentence. That petition now has more than 20,000 signatures.
Fremaux points out he has been acting “in close connection with Panahi” for whom “it is important to have the best possible list of signatures.
“He is very focused on having the support of American directors like Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and Sean Penn, who are very popular in Iran,” Fremaux says.
The eerie complexity of Panahi and Rasoulof’s predicament is made evident by a recent interview given to state-run TV by Iran’s Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini, who said the government might reconsider their punishment if they feel “remorse.”
“We are willing to work with these people concerning their 20-year ban. We can give them some movie projects, meaning that they can start the projects under our direction,” the Iranian Islamic Guidance Minister reportedly said.
But for those who know Panahi, making pro-regime propaganda movies does not seem an option.
“I don’t think Jafar would accept this,” says Iranian-born Kurdish director Fariborz Kamkari, whose international career was launched by Panahi.
“He has always felt a great responsibility for what is happening in Iran, and been the boldest in standing up to the regime.”
Panahi personally submitted Kamkari’s first feature, the 2002 non-authorized “Black Tape,” about the oppression of a young trophy wife by an Iranian army officer, to the Venice fest.
“Punishing Jafar Panahi is a very clear message: It says ‘watch out! If we can do this to Jafar Panahi, who is known internationally, you can imagine what we can do to you,’ ” Kamkari says.
“The fight against Jafar’s sentence and the solidarity and support of the international film community is very important, and not just for Jafar; it is also a fight in support of young directors who are working underground in Iran.”
Kamkari will attend the Panahi protest day at the Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 11. Panahi has also been invited to serve on the Berlin jury, just as he had been invited to be a juror at the Cannes Film Festival last May.
“The current international pressure has been very, very important and also effective, just as it was effective during the Cannes Film Festival last year when Jafar was in jail on a hunger strike,” says Toronto-based helmer Mazdak Taebi, a friend of Panahi.