In Iran, justice is fluid

Recent cases illustrate country's complex legal system

Panahi case in Iran focuses biz

Coming on the heels of 2009’s post-electoral Green Revolution, the arrest of Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof provoked worldwide expressions of indignation. The sentences Iran’s revolutionary court reportedly doled out to the filmmakers last December — six years imprisonment and a 20-year ban from making films — further stoked outrage.

The Iranian state is comprised of a complex system of mechanisms, and the legal position of Pahani and Rasoulof is more complex than reports would suggest — and are still developing.

Based on conversations with several Iranian film professionals — all of whom know Rasoulof and Panahi, and have worked with them in one capacity or another (all prefer to remain anonymous) — it seems that neither Panahi nor Rasoulof is actually in prison or under house arrest.

The violation for which both filmmakers were convicted (filming without permission) allows them to pay fines in lieu of prison time. Both also have the right to appeal, which both filmmakers are exercising. Until that process is complete, it’s hard to say exactly how large the fines will be.

Both Panahi and Rasoulof are presently free to come and go from their homes as they please (foreign travel excluded). Both filmmakers have applied for state permission to shoot new feature films; Rasoulof’s application was approved and he is now in pre-production. A 20-year filmmaking ban is in place for Panahi, and the Iranian filmmakers’ guild, the House of Cinema, has lodged a formal protest asking the courts to reconsider it ruling.

“The situation is complex and paradoxical,” observes one Iranian colleague of Rasoulof. “It goes back to that fact that there are many different organs and institutions ruling the country, which reach different, often contradictory, decisions. On one hand, the government institutions say they disagree with the judiciary’s ruling … That’s why (Rasoulof has) been given permission to make new movies.”

Another Iranian film professional close to both Panahi and Rasoulof attributes the different sentences to the fact that the filmmakers followed different strategies while in detention and while being questioned by state security.

“When Panahi and Rasoulof were arrested and their rushes confiscated, Rasoulof told the police, ‘This is my film. It’s my script and Panahi is not involved,’ ” the source says. “He cooperated, answering their questions.

“Panahi refused to admit he’d done anything wrong. He believes that making films is his right and so he never cooperated, signed anything or answered any questions. ”

The lack of cooperation led to the government putting more pressure on the filmmaker, who then went on a hunger strike. The international film community — which happened to all be at the Cannes Film Festival at the time — rallied to his cause.

“Cannes released a statement requesting his release, so they were obliged to release him,” says the source, who adds that although “Panahi can go grocery shopping,” he can’t work, he can’t leave the country, he has no passport, he can’t do interviews. “Twenty years is a lifetime for a filmmaker. It’s like prison.

“The Iranian cinema guild wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice saying that to tell a filmmaker he can’t do his job is like killing him. We’re awaiting the results. Panahi has asked all his friends not to contact him or to talk about him to any festivals … because he doesn’t want to create any problems for anyone else.”

The five Iranian film professionals who felt able to contribute to this story all agreed that state policies aim to force dissident artists like Panahi and Rasoulof into exile.

“That’s the exact message of this ruling,” one source says. “Before the Green movement, because all Panahi’s films were banned in Iran … the secret police asked him, ‘Why don’t you leave? You can leave and work. We don’t let you work here.’ He doesn’t want to leave. As an Iranian, he believes he has the right to live and work in Iran.”

“They’re really frightened of independent cinema in Iran,” one young filmmaker says. “It’s not just something from the last year. They’ve been seeking a means to limit their freedom for years now.

“With this sentence, they have sent a message to the entire Iranian film community: Cinema is to be understood to be (something that is) dangerous to the government and to the regime … (that) it’s an institution being financed by foreigners and that aims to make regime-change.”