Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison last week after he visited Tehran’s Evin prison to inquire about one of two other film directors – Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-e Ahmad – who were recently arrested for Social media posts about the collapse of a 10-storey building in Abadan in May were arrested for critical criticism.
Evin Prison is notorious as a place that houses prominent Iranian political dissidents, including intellectuals. Mr Panahi’s wife, Tahereh Saidi, told BBC Persian that at the time of his visit, he was immediately arrested by prison guards after being told he had an outstanding prison sentence. Ms Saidi went on to denounce his arrest as “kidnapping”.
The arrest followed Mr Panahi’s support for the Green Wave movement, which came after former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election in 2009. The election was called fraudulent by protesters including Mr Panahi and other filmmakers such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Mr Rasoulof, who believed the rightful winner was reformist politician Mir-Hossein Mousavi. After a period of sustained street protests that began nonviolently, the movement ebbed away after severe state repression, although supporters tried to use the electoral process to win reformist victories. Originally sentenced to prison for supporting anti-regime demonstrations in 2010, the director later received parole from house arrest, which allowed him to travel freely within Iran but banned him for 20 years from directing or to make films.
Mr. Panahi’s work over the past several years can only be characterized as “high risk, high reward.” After his conditional release, Mr. Panahi continued to make films with limited funds and defied the ban. This is not a film, made in 2011, was an autobiographical documentary detailing his life under house arrest and screened at the Cannes Film Festival the same year after the film was released on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake , was smuggled out of Iran . Closed Curtain (pardeh in Persian), filmed in 2013, was secretly filmed at Mr. Panahi’s vacation home on the Caspian Sea as a “docu-fiction” combining autobiographical notes showing Mr. Panahi in a dejected mood while he is trapped in his house as well with fictional plot. This film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013 and also received the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. Another semi-autobiographical “documentary” taxi followed in 2015, winning the Golden Bear in Berlin and worldwide critical acclaim, despite being denounced by Iranian conservatives.
International acclaim notwithstanding, these subversive films (made despite a ban) were a break with Mr. Panahi’s method and emphasis that placed him among the finest of Iran’s new wave filmmaking generation, which also includes other writers such as Abbas Kiarostami ( Mr. Panahi worked as his assistant director), Mr. Makhmalbaf (some also include his daughter Samira), Majid Majidi, Asghar Farhadi and others.
Most of the films of this generation of directors fell under the heading of neorealism, but with “Iranian characteristics” – combined with a “high level of reflexivity and [allegorical] Symbolism” to work within the Islamic Republic’s censorship regime, to quote a 2015 paper by Trent Griffiths.
Mr. Panahi’s initial work fit into this framework before becoming increasingly political without directly relating to the political system. The poignant The Circle (Dayereh in Persian) from 2000 follows the lives of four Iranian women living under the restrictions of Islamic law. The humane film Offside (2006) tells the story of a group of soccer-loving girls who want to watch a game – Iranian women are not allowed in stadiums. His other award-winning films include 2003’s Crimson Gold.
However, Iranian-American intellectual and film critic Hamid Dabashi has lamented that Iran-based filmmakers’ harsh censorship has emasculated either their work, as seen in Mr. Panahi’s overt political statements in recent films post-restrictions on him, or them driven to direct films outside of Iran. He wrote: “Given their creative ingenuity…they can manage to create almost anywhere from their living room to occupied Palestine, but the result begins to abstract filmmakers from that certain intuition of transcendence that brings an artist to the sacred precincts of their… and theirs approaches its culture”.
With social unrest and protests rising in Iran in recent years – a result of both US-imposed economic sanctions and state repression – independent filmmaking has become an even more difficult proposition as the regime’s hostility to anything critical is compared to Iran, in the country increased system. It is this milieu that has decided not to spare even the most famous Iranian directors from arrest and persecution.