According to the movies, the best way of smuggling something into a prison – usually a nail file intended to aid an escape – is by baking it inside a cake. But earlier this year, a real convict reversed the trick, delivering something far more powerful to the world from within the walls that confined him. Buried in a cake posted from Tehran to Paris was a film, stored on a USB drive.
Shot on an iPhone, This Is Not a Film documents the life under house arrest of the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, convicted in 2009 of making propaganda films against the country’s government. The accusation is denied by the multi-award winning director, whose films include Circle (2000) and Offside (2006), celebrated for their humanist themes and neorealist aesthetics.
Variety said This Is Not a Film was in keeping with Iranian cinema’s ability to “spin elegant parables from minimalist situations” and “feels none the slimmer for its humble constraints. If anything, it marks a courageous act of non-violent protest”.
After screening at Cannes in May, the documentary appeared at festivals around the world, including the London Film Festival last week. But audiences in the British capital had the unique experience of watching it on the same day newspapers reported that Panahi’s appeal against his conviction had been rejected.
A court in Tehran upheld last year’s sentence comprising a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban on making films, leaving Iran or even talking to the media.
Panahi has not given up, however. His lawyer told the Iranian student news agency Isna he would appeal to the country’s supreme court.
But the government crackdown on filmmakers does not end with the 51-year-old member of the Iranian New Wave. Last month, Katayoun Shahabi, Hadi Afarideh, Nasser Saffarian, Shahnama Bazdar and Mohsen Shahrnazdar were all arrested on espionage charges. So, too, was Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, the co-director of This Is Not a Film. All six documentary-makers’ films have appeared on BBC Persian TV.
An Iranian actress, Marzieh Vafamehr, was also jailed and sentenced to receive 90 lashes for appearing in a film allegedly critical of Iran.
The Iranian authorities drew heavy criticism last week from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the US, which gives out the film industry’s top awards, the Oscars.
“These filmmakers – and others – are artists, not political combatants,” the statement read. “We join our colleagues around the world in calling unequivocally for these filmmakers’ safety, release and return to filmmaking.”
The sentiments were echoed by a number of industry groups, including the Director’s Guild, which said: “We hope the Iranian government will release these filmmakers and recognise that their creative works can only strengthen and enrich Iranian society.”
Panahi came into conflict with Iran’s government after the presidential elections in 2009, which sparked a wave of protest across the country. The director, who accused the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of faking the election results, was arrested and charged together with his colleague, Mohammad Rasoulof (whose own six-year sentence has been reduced to one year).
Iran’s culture minister said in 2010 that Panahi had been arrested for “making a film against the regime and it was about the events that followed the election”. However, the director’s wife denied that he had been making a film about the opposition Green movement, saying: “The film was being shot inside the house and had nothing to do with the regime.”
The growing repression of the country’s filmmakers has led a group of prominent Iranians – including the artist Shirin Neshat, the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and the Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashlou – to call on other countries to take action.
“We ask you to boycott the official Iranian film and television organisations and impose tough visa sanctions against Iranian film and television officials,” read the statement, released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Conspicuously absent from the 21 names calling for the filmmakers’ release was the country’s best-known director, Abbas Kiarostami, the man behind last year’s award-winning Certified Copy and who acted as mentor to Panahi.
But despite refusing to endorse the boycott call, Kiarostami shed some light on the conditions that Iranian filmmakers work under last week in an interview with German radio station, Deutschlandradio Kultur.
“It’s a very, very, very bad situation. It’s not by chance that I shot this film in Italy, in a language that I don’t understand at all. And I’m going to shoot my next film in Japan,” he said. “How come? It has to do with the very complicated situation for filmmakers in Iran. That’s the answer. I’m making my films abroad, in Italy and in Japan.”
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