Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, two of the leading and most brilliant lights of the Iranian cinema, have been silenced. They were sentenced to six years in prison for "assembly and collusion and propagation against the regime.”
Panahi gets an additional 20-year ban from making or writing any films and from foreign travel or giving any interviews. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, another prominent Iranian filmmaker’s entire family, including his daughters, Samira and Hannah, also make films and are already living in exile.
The only chance is that an appeals court would overturn the lower court's decision and void or reduce the sentence. How likely is this? In some Iranian press, the harsh sentences were seen as the Iranian court system's thumbing their nose at the condemnation by the international film community when Panahi was in jail and eventually on a hunger strike in the spring of 2010. He was invited to be on a panel at the Berlin International Film Festival in February but was forbidden to leave Iran. He was appointed to the jury of the Cannes Film Festival but again was not allowed to travel. At the awards ceremony, an empty chair was reserved for him. Juliette Binoche - who won the Best Actress Award for her role in ”Certified Copy”, a film by Abbas Kiarostami – made a tearful plea in Panahi’s defense.
The brutality of the Iranian government regime's sentencing of Rasoulof and Panahi has a strong anti-intellectual base. The people who invaded Panahi's apartment and identified themselves as agents of the Ministry of Intelligence, confiscated Panahi's video library. The film which he credits with influencing him the most is Vittorio de Sica's “The Bicycle Thief.” The prosecutor in charge of the case asked Panahi: "What are these obscene films you're collecting?" In his eloquent defense letter to the court, Panahi asked, "I do not comprehend the charge of obscenity at the classics of film history.... If those charges are true, you are putting not only us on trial but the socially conscious, humanistic, and artistic Iranian cinema as well, a cinema which tries to stay beyond good and evil, a cinema that does not judge or surrender to power or money but tries to honestly reflect a realistic image of society."
Some of the other charges are equally grotesque. Most of Panahi's films were made with non-professional actors -- a characteristic of many Iranian films. He was accused of making a film without permission, and of not giving a script to the actors. Panahi wrote, "This sounds more like a joke."
Panahi's 26-year old son, Panah, says his father had no thought of making any kind of film about what happened after the election in Iran. Now 50, Jafar Panahi was born in a poor area of south Tehran, one of eight children. "My dad was living in a very crowded house during his childhood," Panah says, but "he fell in love with cinema at an early age, working after school from the age of 12 in order to make money to see films. He was always in touch with the limitations and poverty that surrounded him. It was from that time that the kind of social perspective toward cinema took shape in his mind. He wants to use the art of cinema to show the pain of human beings ... by showing the limitations, the poverty, sadness, difficult times in human history - this is the way to achieve a humanistic cinema."
The characters in Panahi's films like “The Circle,” “Crimson Gold,” “The Mirror,” and “Offside” are often living in the margins; in particular, Panahi focuses on the disenfranchisement of women. Like Panahi, Rasoulof focuses on characters in difficult circumstances. In “The Twilight,” real-life prisoners play themselves as the prison warden decides that in order to rehabilitate a repeat offender, he should let him marry a female prisoner. In his “Iron Island,” a huge abandoned oil tanker becomes its own society of squatters.
It is the often poetic yet realistic approach that endows these characters and situations with a universal humanity which goes beyond their immediate circumstances, and has made Iranian films and filmmakers a force in international cinema which is about to be silenced.
Milos Stehlik is Worldview's film contributor and the director of Facets Multi-Media.