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Iranian Director Detained, Sent Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, best known for his Oscar-nominated film “The White Balloon,” was detained last weekend for 12 hours by immigration officials at JFK Airport in New York, where he was changing planes en route from the Hong Kong to the Buenos Aires film festivals. He was then held four more hours before being put on a plane back to Hong Kong and from there on to Tehran, where he makes his home, according to a friend of the director.

Panahi had been scheduled to travel from Buenos Aires to San Francisco and later Los Angeles for the opening of his acclaimed new film “The Circle” but, angered by his treatment, he canceled the trip.

Panahi was detained by the INS because he did not have a transit visa, according to the friend.

Once he had returned to Iran, Panahi called his friend, Jamsheed Akrami, a professor of communications at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, to express his outrage. Contacted by phone at the university, Akrami said Panahi told him, “I’ve made this film [‘The Circle’] about the injustice done to women in my country, and because of that I’m not going to take any injustice from any other country. The National Board of Review gave me the Freedom of Expression Award for the year 2000, but now I plan to return it.”

“The Circle” is a bleak drama that indicts Iran as a prison for women. It won the top honor last year at the Venice Film Festival and will be released May 11 in Los Angeles by Winstar Cinema.

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A filmmaker himself, Akrami frequently serves as a consultant to American distributors releasing Iranian films. He and Panahi became friends when Akrami worked with October Films on the 1995 release of “The White Balloon.” He has been an interpreter for Panahi, who does not speak English.

“I was awakened by a phone call from Panahi at 6:30 a.m.,” said Akrami. “He told me he had arrived at JFK Sunday evening at 6 p.m. United Airlines, which he flew on from Hong Kong, didn’t tell him he would need a transit visa.”

According to Akrami, Panahi’s troubles started when he refused to be fingerprinted, which he has said he finds humiliating. (The State Department requires that citizens of some countries be fingerprinted in an attempt to prevent members of terrorist organizations from entering the country.)

Akrami said that when Panahi was invited to the New York Film Festival last September, its director, Richard Pena, went to extraordinary lengths to make sure Panahi could enter without being fingerprinted. He again avoided it in March when he went to Washington, D.C., for a tribute in his honor.

“Panahi was supposed to go from Buenos Aires to San Francisco to be honored at its film festival and then on to Los Angeles for the opening of ‘The Circle,’ but Winstar, which did its best, found that under the Bush administration that there could be no exceptions to the fingerprinting,” explained Akrami. Panahi told him, “OK, I’m not coming [to the United States].”

Akrami added: “It’s the ultimate irony that he had gone to such lengths to avoid fingerprinting that he then fell into the trap this time.”

Sharon Gavin, spokeswoman for the INS Los Angeles District, said that citizens of some countries are now required to have transit visas even if they are only in the U.S. to change planes. Without a transit visa, the individual is regarded as trying to enter the country illegally and is therefore detained, fingerprinted, photographed and sent back to his point of departure.

Temple Black, an INS public affairs officer, said that as of March 30, 2000, Iran has been placed on a list of countries whose citizens must have a transit visa to enter the U.S.

Not only did Panahi refuse to be fingerprinted in order to get out of detention, but he also refused to take mug shots required by the INS, said Akrami. Officials finally accepted a picture he had of himself, which enabled him to go back to Hong Kong.

Winstar Cinema Vice President Wendy Liddell reacted to the incident by noting, “Our overriding regret is for the pain this incident has caused Mr. Panahi. We also regret, due to U.S. immigration policy, that Mr. Panahi will not be able to come to the U.S. to promote his films, and we fear that this policy could close off the availability of Iranian cinema in the U.S.”


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