The Toronto Film Critics Association has joined a growing body of international voices urging the release of Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mahmoud Rasoulof, who have now spent two weeks in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison without charges.
"At stake is fundamental freedom of expression, an issue that is vital to anyone who cares about cinema," said TFCA president Brian D. Johnson. "Panahi is, by any measure, a major international director whose films have shed a spotlight on the plight of the poor and especially women in Iran. Now he's being used as an example to anyone in Iran who wants to speak out and show an honest portrait of the society's faults."
On March 1, Panahi was taken from his home along with his wife, daughter and 15 friends to Iran's Evin Prison. All but Panahi and fellow filmmaker Rasoulof were released within 48 hours. Iranian Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari confirmed that Panahi had been arrested for "certain offences" but said they were not related to his "profession or to politics."
Followers of Iranian cinema, such as Columbia University Iranian studies professor Hamid Dabashi, say that Panahi has apparently been accused of attempting to make a documentary about the opposition movement, but there is no evidence that this is the case.
In recent months, Panahi has been forthright in his support of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In September, when he served as president of the Montreal World Film Festival jury, he handed out green scarves to his fellow jury members in support of Iran's opposition movement. On Thursday, a close of friend of Panahi's, Iranian-Canadian director Mazdak Toebi (Mercy) spoke to contacts in Iran who said that Panahi had been allowed one phone call to his family, that he has not been tortured, and that he has resisted co-operating with his interrogators.
The Toronto Film Critics Association, a group of about 30 print and broadcast journalists, is the latest in a group of individuals and organizations that have called for Panahi's release. These include the Federation of European Film Directors, the European Film Academy, the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the International Film Festival Rotterdam and Human Rights Watch, which has asked the Iranian government to either release or charge Panahi and Rasoulof.
Among individuals who have called for Panahi's and Rousolof's release include Palme d'Or-winning filmmakers Ken Loach and Abbas Kiarostami as well Iranian-Canadian journalist and former Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who was jailed in Iran for 118 days last year. The Canadian government expressed concern about Panahi's arrest, and the foreign ministers of France and Germany have demanded his release.
The 49-year-old filmmaker is a central figure in the critically acclaimed Iranian art cinema of the past 20 years, with such films as The White Balloon, Crimson Gold, The Circle and Offside. Shot in a poetic documentary style, the films focus on themes of confinement and oppression. The Circle, for example, focused on prostitutes in Iran; and his most recent feature, Offside (2006), was about girls who are arrested for secretly attending a World Cup soccer match. Though banned at home, Panahi has been widely awarded at international festivals, winning top prizes at the Venice and Berlin festivals and the best-first film award at Cannes.
His lesser-known colleague, Rasoulof has made three features, and one documentary in 2008 called Head Wind, about censorship in Iran. Though there has been an international outcry and call for his release, the Iranian government has remained unmoved.
It's a case that has serious implications for the future of Iranian cinema. In the past 20 years, Iran's humanistic filmmakers put a human face on the country, which has often been vilified in the North American news media. Directors who have won acclaim include Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami (who wrote the scripts for The White Balloon and Crimson Gold), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar) and Bahman Gohbadi (A Time for Drunken Horses). But both Makhmalbaf and Gohbadi have gone into exile in the last year.
Unlike other Iranian directors, Panahi did not typically hide behind allegory and metaphor in his critiques of Iranian social repression. When I interviewed Panahi in 2007, in conjunction with the release of Offside, he described Iran as a country ruled by an increasingly repressive fundamentalist minority. He said the right wing in Iran had used the showdown with the United States over Iran's nuclear program as an excuse to suppress dissenting voices. He had been asked to leave the country but had refused, saying his work was rooted in Iranian culture.
A new crackdown on artists and filmmakers, most of whom support the opposition, has been going on since late last year. In January, Iranian photographer Mehraneh Atashi was jailed and, last week, released. On Tuesday of last week, 82-year-old poet Simin Behbahani, on her way to an International Women's Day event in Paris, was pulled from a plane and forced to surrender her passport.
Prof. Dabashi says that the filmmakers' fate is caught in a tug-of-war between Iran's security forces, who are unconcerned about the world's opinion, and the foreign ministry. "He's not nobody," says Dabashi. "People outside of Iran are paying attention."