It is a story worthy of a great director. In the year since the contested reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a dramatic struggle has played out between Jafar Panahi and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In July the filmmaker was arrested at a funeral service for protester Neda Agha-Soltan. In August, after Panahi organized a demonstration in solidarity with opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi at the Montreal Film Festival, the government revoked his passport. And on the night of March 1, he was seized from his home in Tehran on charges that he was filming a documentary about the opposition Green Movement. After three months in solitary confinement at the city’s notorious Evin prison, and a week after launching a hunger strike, Panahi was finally released on bail on May 25.
The regime is clearly threatened by the intrepid, 49-year-old filmmaker. And with good reason: Over the past ten years, Panahi has devastatingly chronicled the country’s transformation from a budding democracy to a thuggish theocracy. So with the first anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection approaching, it’s worth looking back at the work of the man who has been called “the filmmaker laureate of the Green Movement.”
Panahi’s artistic and political prominence has been growing steadily in the decade since he made The Circle, a searing account of the everyday persecution of women on the streets of Tehran. The film earned the top award at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, which came amidst a remarkable run in Iranian cinema that stretched from the late ’90s to the early 2000s, the result of a short-lived cultural thaw under then-President Mohammad Khatami. While many Iranian filmmakers rely—and relied, even then—on allegory to evade the country’s censors, The Circle addresses Iran’s most contentious political issues with remarkable candor. Opening with the birth of a baby girl and closing with a young woman’s return to jail, Panahi’s serpentine narrative moves across seven storylines to depict the traumas inflicted by domineering husbands and abusive fathers, oppressive laws and stifling social customs. It is a breathtakingly risky work.
Panahi’s next film, Crimson Gold (2003), follows a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war as he ekes out a desperate existence as a pizza deliveryman. Nuanced in its critique of class privilege, revealing in its depiction of life in Tehran, Crimson Gold is most successful in underscoring the extent to which Khatami’s presidency was marked more by the frustration of reformist aspirations than by any noticeable improvement in the material and social conditions experienced by ordinary Iranians. Take the scene where a delivery brings Hussein to the lavish home of a former army supervisor who, much richer now, no longer recognizes him. A less artful filmmaker might have shaped this interaction into a chest-thumping manifesto on inequality, but Panahi frames his performers at a reflective distance, issuing a quietly affecting appraisal of the Islamic Revolution’s unrealized ideals of mustaz'afin (“solidarity with the oppressed”). Panahi’s understatement makes for both good cinema and a vivid snapshot of contemporary Iran.
Panahi’s last film of the decade was Offside (2006), a portrait of a group of female soccer fans defying the laws that forbid Iranian women from attending sporting events. As Panahi’s plucky protagonists wait in a holding pen along the walls of a stadium, their humorous exchanges with their boyish guards reveal the absurd, Orwellian logic of life under the Iranian theocracy. "When Japan comes to Tehran to play Iran, how come the Japanese women are allowed into the stadium?" asks one of the young women, her face painted in the colors of the Iranian flag. "Because they're Japanese," a soldier retorts, stating the obvious. Her biting response: “So the problem is I am Iranian?"
Offside’s semi-improvised storyline was shot without permits on the margins of a World Cup qualifying match in Tehran. The real-life danger lurking among the “extras” only serves to amplify Panahi’s increasingly audacious marriage of life and art, aesthetics and politics. And the film’s subversive energy anticipates the popular resistance and youth-oriented politics (70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30) that have emerged with the rise of the Green Movement.
But Panahi’s evolution into a symbol of opposition has led to his recent troubles with the authorities. Iranian artists have played a crucial role in mobilizing the Green Movement, and the regime is targeting cultural icons to intimidate their less prominent peers into self-censorship. The Ministry of Culture and Guidance has moved against the national film industry with particular vigor, announcing in December that President Ahmadinejad would personally lead a new government body to supervise Iranian cinema. It should not come as a surprise that the most prominent Iranian films to reach international audiences in the past year have been made by filmmakers who have fled the country. At a recent D.C. screening of No One Knows About Persian Cats, a provocative film about underground music in Tehran, Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Gobadi spoke of the pressures that led to his current exile in Berlin. If he returns to Iran under the current government, Gobadi told the audience, he “will end up just like Jafar Panahi.”
Though the details of his alleged offenses have still not been given, Panahi’s indictment has been sent to the Revolutionary Court for future action and he may be brought to trial. Meanwhile, the international community has been offering much in the way of support: There was a special tribute to Panahi at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, an open letter by a group of major American filmmakers condemning his detention, and an official statement by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner welcoming his release from prison. But, really, who knows if it will help? Mohammad Nourizad, a less prominent filmmaker, was just sentenced to three and a half years in jail for criticizing Ayatollah Khamenei.
When thinking about Panahi’s uncertain future, I prefer to recall the final scene in Offside. As the film’s protagonists are being hauled to the Vice Squad, a sea of jubilant soccer fans emerges in front of the police wagon, heralding an Iranian victory. The young women flee their guards in the ensuing frenzy and enter the crowd singing “Ey Iran,” a paean to Iranian arts and culture. Even when threatened with imprisonment, or worse, they never lost the creative energy and defiant patriotism that have sustained so many other young Iranians in the struggle for a more just society.