Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi released from prison after declaring hunger strike

A man holding a camera
Jafar Panahi in the movie “No Bears.”
(Sideshow/Janus Films)

Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was released from prison in Tehran on Friday.

The news follows a whirlwind few days. Panahi had been in prison since July serving a six-year sentence. Earlier this week, he declared a hunger strike, saying in a statement, “I will remain in this state until perhaps my lifeless body is freed from prison.”

The Times confirmed the news of Panahi’s release with representatives for Cinetic Media, the New York-based company that was involved in releasing Panahi’s recent film “No Bears.”

In a statement announcing the filmmaker’s release from Panahi’s wife, Tahereh Saeidi, a quote was attributed to one of Panahi’s lawyers, Saleh Nikbakht. “Although I am happy about Mr. Panahi’s release, it must be said that his release should have taken place three months ago, following the acceptance of our objection to his previous court decision,” Nikbakht said.


Nikbakht added, “I am surprised by these ‘sledgehammer encounters’ with Mr. Panahi and other artists, writers, intellectuals and journalists and generally protestors of the status quo. As they even neglect to implement the decision of the highest judicial authority.”

One of Iran’s most politically outspoken filmmakers, Panahi has been targeted by the country’s regime for decades. In 2010, Panahi was arrested and convicted of national security violations stemming from a documentary he was making chronicling the protests that followed the disputed reelection of Iran‘s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Panahi and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof were sentenced to six years in prison and barred from writing screenplays and traveling abroad for 20 years. Released on $200,000 bail, Panahi was placed under house arrest.

Panahi was detained by Iranian authorities last year after he inquired about the arrests of Rasoulof and another filmmaker, Mostafa Al-Ahmad. Panahi’s inquiry led to his own arrest, with authorities reimposing the six-year prison sentence that had been handed down in 2010 but never enforced. Panahi argued the statute of limitations on his original sentence had expired.

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“This arrest was more like banditry and hostage-taking than the execution of a judicial sentence,” Panahi said in the Feb. 1 statement from Tehran’s Evin Prison, in which he also declared his hunger strike.

Panahi first came to international attention with “The White Balloon” (1995), a delicate drama about a young girl trying to buy a goldfish that won the Cannes Film Festival’s Caméra d’Or prize for best debut feature. After that film and “The Mirror” (1997), he moved away from child-focused stories and drew still more worldwide acclaim with movies like “The Circle” (2000) and “Offside” (2006), both intensely critical of the nation’s treatment of women. (Both movies won major prizes at international film festivals, and both were banned from release in Iran.) His 2003 feature, “Crimson Gold,” was a crime drama that drew attention to class and economic struggles across Iran.

Panahi was subjected to a 20-year filmmaking ban in 2010, which hardly slowed his productivity or his resourcefulness at getting around restrictions. In 2011 he emerged with “This Is Not a Film,” a personal video diary shot during his months under house arrest; the movie was smuggled out of Iran and into the Cannes Film Festival on a USB drive hidden inside a cake.


Even after his release from house arrest, he continued to shoot in secret and under difficult conditions, often appearing on-screen as a fictional version of himself and ruminating on his personal circumstances as well as those of the nation at large. His 2015 film, “Taxi,” in which he plays a roving cab driver on the streets of Tehran, won the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

His two most recent features, “3 Faces” (2019) and “No Bears” (2022), both cast a critically unsparing eye on small-town misogyny and religious traditionalism. Panahi’s most recent arrest took place in July, several weeks before “No Bears” premiered and won a special jury prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

Times film critic Justin Chang declared “No Bears” the best film of 2022. “Part of the point [Panahi’s] making in this movie is that his constraints have never been purely physical, and neither are his means of resistance, he wrote in his review. “Cinema, like the world itself, is full of invisible boundaries, governed by rules and assumptions that Panahi has long challenged with extraordinary resourcefulness and good-natured cunning.”

Film critic Justin Chang and staff writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.