x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Stars come out to demand film director Panahi's freedom

Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro join the celebrity campaign for the release of the Iranian film director Jafar Panahi from a Tehran prison.

The Iranian director Jafar Panahi, a supporter of the opposition 'green' movement, has been in prison since March.
The Iranian director Jafar Panahi, a supporter of the opposition 'green' movement, has been in prison since March.

Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone are among the Hollywood luminaries urging Iran to release from jail one of its most celebrated directors, Jafar Panahi. Other movie heavyweights who signed a petition this weekend are Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Ang Lee and Michael Moore.

"Like artists everywhere, Iran's filmmakers should be celebrated, not censored, repressed and imprisoned," the petition said. Mr Panahi, an award-winning director who supports Iran's opposition green movement, was arrested during a police raid on his house on March 1 and is being held in Tehran's Evin prison. He was there for a month before his wife, Taherah Saeedi, was allowed to meet him. She said she found him "very pale, thin and weak".

Her 49-year-old husband had been moved to a smaller, "tomblike" cell and has spent most of his time in solitary confinement, she told the website, Rooz Online last month. Beyond his prison bars, however, Mr Panahi is far from forgotten. At home, 50 Iranian filmmakers signed a letter in mid-March beseeching the authorities to free him. Similar calls have been made by several European film academies and festivals.

Such concern is testament to the esteem in which Iranian cinema is held around the world. "Iran's contributions to international cinema have been rightfully heralded, and encouraged those of us outside the country to respect and cherish its people and their stories," the Hollywood petition said. Stifling censorship has failed to curb artistic creativity in Iran, although some of the country's best-known filmmakers, such as Mohsen Makhlambaf, also an opposition supporter, live in exile.

Other award-winning directors, such as Abbas Kiarostami, meanwhile, have little hope of seeing their work screened in Iran. Iran's celebrated film industry has given the country a human face abroad, helping to counter mostly negative stereotypes of the Islamic republic in western media. The Iranian regime gives the impression that it has a Teflon-coated attitude to international criticism. But it does care about its image.

"They do not want to be seen as a regime that oppresses artists," said an analyst in Tehran who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. He cited the example of Golshifteh Farahani, an Iranian actress and musician who made a rare breakthrough in a Hollywood blockbuster by starring opposite Leonardo Di Caprio in Body of Lies. The 2008 film was critical of the US's policies in the Middle East, but this did not spare her the regime's contempt. She was subjected to months of questioning when she returned to Iran.

Now self-exiled in Paris, Farahani, 26, is vocal in her support of Iran's opposition movement. Dismayed by the bad publicity surrounding her treatment, the Iranian government has attempted to cajole her home with promises that all is forgiven. She has no plans to return. The regime also suffered acute embarrassment in January when Ken Loach and Peter Brook - respectively giants of British film and theatre - boycotted Tehran's Fajr festival, an annual showcase for Iran's film, drama, poetry and literature.

Joined by others from the international arts scene, they did so in protest of the government's crackdown against peaceful opposition to President Mahdmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last June. They were also responding to a plea by Iranian filmmakers, playwrights and actors to snub the event in order to avoid conferring respectability on Mr Ahmadinejad's government. Scores of political activists, journalists and students have been subjected to imprisonment, beatings and show trials in recent months.

The regime has also stepped up measures to intimidate artists since Mr Ahmadinejad first came to power five years ago, but has relied on subtler methods than imprisonment. Permission to screen films, for example, is often refused while energetic underground musicians and artists perform and exhibit mostly in the privacy of their homes. Mr Panahi's detention appears set to rebound on the regime, with Hollywood's intercession bringing him unprecedented publicity and bolstering his status as a cultural icon.

"We ? stand in solidarity with a fellow filmmaker, condemn this detention, and strongly urge the Iranian government to release Mr Panahi immediately," the Hollywood petition said. The authorities had at first denied that he was detained for political reasons. Tehran's public prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, said Mr Panahi was "accused of some crimes and arrested with another person following an order by a judge".

But six weeks later, Iran's culture minister, Mohammad Hosseini, claimed Mr Panahi was arrested because he was making an anti-regime film about the events that followed Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election. The director's wife had already denied this, insisting he was shooting a film inside their house that "had nothing to do with the regime". Mr Panahi won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 for The Circle, a movie about the uneven lot of Iranian women.

Last year Mr Panahi angered the regime by sporting a green headscarf - the colour of opposition supporters - at the Montreal Film Festival, where he was head of the jury. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae