And now for something completely different and extremely contemptible. Jafar Panahi -- one of the living luminaries of Iranian cinema, and winner of the Camera d'Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and The Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival -- has been stripped of his freedom and his voice by Iran's governing regime. Panahi is a prominent supporter of the country's opposition green movement, and his films have been invariably critical of the Iranian government.
We reported in March that Panahi had been forcibly detained, accused of making a film that painted Iran's most recent election in an unfavorable light. A petition demanding the director's release was circulated immediately, and signed by names like Roger Ebert and Steven Spielberg. Panahi alleged that he was mistreated in prison (a claim we're not going to dispute), and in May he began a hunger strike before being released on $200,000 bail. Panahi returned to court in November, where he declared: "I am Iranian and I will remain in Iran." Yesterday The Guardian reported that Panahi was sentenced to 6 years in prison, and is prohibited from making films until 2030.
Farideh Gheyrat, Panahi's lawyer, tells The Guardian: "[Panahi] is therefore sentenced to six years in prison and also he is banned for 20 years from making any films, writing any scripts, travelling abroad and also giving any interviews to the media including foreign and domestic news organisations." Gheyrat insisted that the sentence would be vigorously appealed, but prospects of the conviction being overturned are predictably grim.
Panahi is an obvious target for Iran's oppressive regime. He's earned his celebrity with films like 'The Circle' and 'Crimson Gold,' which are unsentimental and defiantly humanistic portraits of regular Iranians struggling to etch lives and identities for themselves in totalitarian times. Far from easy ethnographic studies, Panahi's films are celebrated the world over for their beauty and craft, even as they're banned and condemned within the borders of his home country. Often lovingly devoted to the plight of Iranian women, Panahi skillfully blends the self-reflexivity of Abbas Kiarostami with the sensitive empathy of Mohsen Makmalbaf, and does so in a way that is equally invigorating and entertaining.
His most recent (and perhaps final) film is 2006's 'Offside,' a charmingly enraging story of some young girls who try to sneak into a soccer match in a country that doesn't allow women to attend soccer matches. One of the most disarmingly resonant masterpieces of the last ten years, 'Offside' is the work of a master in his prime, and is certainly the greatest sports movie ever made that doesn't feature a moment of actual sports.
The Guardian spoke with Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, who opined that, "This is a catastrophe for Iran's cinema. Panahi is now exactly in the most creative phase of his life and by silencing him at this sensitive time, they are killing his art and talent." Dabashi later detailed the national ramifications of Panahi's sentence, offering that, "Iran is sending a clear message by this sentence that they don't have any tolerance and can't bear arts, philosophy or anything like that. This is a sentence against the whole culture of Iran. They want the artists to sit at their houses and stop creating art. This is a catastrophe for a whole nation."
Editorializing, ahoy! To echo Dabashi's sentiments, this is obviously both a tragic day for cinema as well as a tragic day for human progress. It appears as if the autocratic forces of regressive censorship haven't just robbed the world of one of its most vital artists, but also a country of one of its most essential voices. As film lovers and free-thinking people alike, we have no choice but to shine a light on this atrocity and shame those at fault into reversing their decision. This all feels like a ghastly clerical error, a mistake so flippantly unjust that it seems inevitable that the forces of reason will descend upon Panahi's cell and absolve him of this insanity. If only.
We're not here to stir our readers into political action, but art must be allowed to flourish, and Jafar Panahi's cinema is important in a way that cinema should no longer have to be. We urge you to consider both his films and his plight.