After the Oscar win for “A Separation” and the release, starting this Wednesday, of Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film” at the Film Forum, fans of Iranian cinema are probably celebrating. But let’s not forget: Panahi remains in the same virtual prison seen in his triumphant, solitary masterpiece, even as the film itself has the freedom to travel. The reviews of “This Is Not a Film” are stellar (“a great film,” “extraordinary,” “deft and ironic,” “inspiring as it is heartbreaking”), but Panahi still sits at home, awaiting to begin his six-year prison sentence. According to those close to the filmmaker, he has little legal recourse left, and must face his unjust punishment.
“Jafar is not technically under house arrest, and he has no more appeals left,” says Panahi’s friend, filmmaker and academic Jamsheed Akrami. “He is at a judicial phase known as ‘execution of the verdict,’ which means he can be sent back to prison anytime. The government has decided to keep him in limbo for the time being, neither free to live or work as he wishes, nor jailed.”
When I reported on the arrest of Panahi and another filmmaker, Mohammad Rasoulof, in February last year for this Indiewire article (“Why The Iranian Filmmakers Are in Limbo“), Akrami told me that Panahi may have been caught within competing parties within the government.
“The internal clashes between different factions of the regime over the fate of the two filmmakers adds to the complexity of the situation,” said Akrami, who cited a recent incident in which a close aide to President Ahmadenijad publicly complained about the severity of the sentences. “This episode in particular exposes the fissures between the Islamic Republic’s judiciary and executive branches.”
Faraz Sanei, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who specializes in Iran and Bahrain, agreed. “Is it possible that there’s infighting going on? Sure,” he said. “And yes, there are elements within the regime that may think differently.”
Sanei also suggested that Panahi’s limbo could be interminable. “It’s not unusual for delays,” he said, citing the recent prolonged trial of three American hikers who spent 18 months under arrest before they were deteremined to be not guilty.
If Panahi does go to jail, or if he remains incarerated in his current political prison, I keep going back to something he said to me during an interview in 2007 upon the release of his film “Offside” that speaks to his resourcefulness as both an artist and an activist. “Censorship has always existed in Iranian cinema. It’s a credit to the cleverness of the Iranian filmmakers, both before and after the revolution, that they still make their own movies.”
“I am a socially committed filmmaker,” he added, “and I cannot be indifferent to what is happening around me.”