Hollywood shines light on director Jafar Panahi’s sentencing in Iran

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White may be making a comeback on the red carpet this award season, if Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis has anything to say about it.

In an earlier version of this article, the age of British-Iranian actress and Amnesty International spokewoman Nazanin Boniadi was given as 39. She’s 31.

Haggis, the director of “Crash,” and others are urging Hollywood stars to pin on white lapel ribbons to register their opposition to the Iranian government’s treatment of acclaimed director Jafar Panahi (“Offside”) and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who were sentenced last month to six years in prison and banned from making movies for 20 years.

Panahi was a supporter of the protest movement that sprang to life after the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was arrested in March on charges of conspiring to make an unauthorized movie that chronicled the movement; Rasoulof was accused of collaborating with him.

The filmmakers were convicted of national security violations, including propagandizing against the system, a charge often lodged against journalists and artists critical of the hard-line government. They are appealing.


Though Haggis does not know Panahi and Rasoulof personally, and the Iranian government is notoriously resistant to outside pressure, he said he felt compelled do to something when he heard the news.

“When I see something like this, it hits pretty close to home,” said Haggis, who with Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese and producer Harvey Weinstein joined with Amnesty International to condemn the sentence and sign Amnesty’s petition calling for international pressure on Iran to lift it.

“We just can’t point the finger over here. Intolerance is growing in our country as well, so it may be absurd to say what is happening there couldn’t happen here,” says Haggis, founder of Artists for Peace and Justice, an anti-poverty and social justice effort that has been particularly active in Haiti relief efforts. “It has happened here before” with the 1950s Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, he noted.

The sentencing of Panahi and Rasoulof will definitely be a hot topic next week at the Sundance Film Festival. Two young Iranian-born directors who are having world premieres at the festival have been speaking out about their plight.

Ali Samadi Ahadi (“Lost Children”) — whose latest film, the documentary collage “The Green Wave,” is about the events before and after the presidential elections in 2009 and is screening in competition at Sundance — has already run into problems talking about Panahi. Though he has lived in Germany for the last 25 years, he has family in Iran, including his sister and mother. Shortly after a recent interview with the Voice of America, he said his sister was visited by the secret police.

“The only thing you can do is do what you think is right,” says Ahadi, who was last in Iran two months before the 2009 election. “If we are talking human rights … then we have to say that Jafar Panahi had made nothing illegal. He used his fundamental human rights and his fundamental rights as a filmmaker. That is the reason we have to raise our voice to say ‘stop.’ He is really the representation of all filmmakers in Iran and normal people in the streets. If they do that with Jafar Panahi, you can ask yourself how easy can they put pressure on the normal people” to be quiet.


Another young Iranian filmmaker, Maryam Keshavarz (“The Color of Love”), whose drama “Circumstance,” which chronicles the relationship between two girls, is also in competition at Sundance, says it has gotten progressively harder to get permits to make films in Iran.

“My brother, who is also a filmmaker, shot before the elections, and it was really difficult,” says Keshavarz, who lives in New York. “Now it’s nearly impossible to get permits, and producers don’t want to take the risk. I shot ‘Circumstance’ in Lebanon, and a lot of people are starting to make films out of the country, though they are placed in Iran.”

British-Iranian actress and Amnesty International spokeswoman Nazanin Boniadi, 31, who last saw her native country when she was 12, said that what is being done with the Amnesty campaign “is really trying to give a voice to the director. Our goal right now is to galvanize Hollywood and the worldwide artistic community to take action.”

Besides Amnesty’s petition, Directors Guild of America President Taylor Hackford and the National Society of Film Critics have condemned the sentencing of Panahi and Rasoulof.

“To have art suppressed is very dangerous to society. That is why it’s so important for me to raise my voice and do something about it,” Boniadi says. “As far as the 2009 elections go, there has been a serious crackdown on human rights in Iran, a clampdown on the media and the wrongful imprisonment of journalists. So it seems what’s happening is the government is going after people who have a voice, people who change society or public opinion.”

Whether the international outcry will have any influence is uncertain. Jan-Christopher Horak, head of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which since 1990 has presented an annual Celebration of Iranian Cinema, voiced some pessimism.


“You know these kind of governments are unpredictable,” he says. “There is no way to know. But I will tell you filmmakers always find a way regardless of what the political conditions are in any given country. One arrest does not change that.”

Shirin Neshat, an Iranian visual artist and director of the acclaimed 2009 film “Women Without Men,” lives in New York. She hasn’t returned to Iran since 1996 because her photographs, short films and her feature film look at the life of women in contemporary Islamic societies. “The government has problems with my own work,” she says. “You don’t have to do much to get in trouble with this government.”

Since the elections in 2009 and the subsequent uprising, says Neshat, “a lot of us who were not really activists but slightly political began to be fully activists. We have been so present and vocal in the medium…. That goes back to Jafar. He is a social realist. And yet the minute this course of events happened, he took a side, and his side was very clear. He was not being cautious. He was doing what he believed in. The government is basically punishing him for not being afraid and continuing to take his positions.”

Panahi recently sent an impassioned statement to the Iranian court in which he defended his work while telling the judge that the whole of Iranian cinema was on trial.

“You are putting me on trial for making a film that, at the time of the arrest, was only thirty percent shot. If these charges are true, you are putting not only us on trial but the socially conscious, humanistic and artistic Iranian cinema as well, 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 the society.”

Though several directors have left Iran, including the renowned Bahman Ghobadi (“No One Knows About Persian Cats”), Panahi has no plans to leave his homeland.


“I am staying in my country and I like to work in my own country,” he said in his statement. “I love my country, I have paid a price for this love too, and I am willing to pay again if necessary.”