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In Cannes, Hope's Raised Then Dashed Over Filmmaker's Imprisonment in Iran

Indiewire By Brian Brooks | Indiewire May 18, 2010 at 12:50PM

Confusion is surrounding an announcement in Cannes that detained Iranian director Jafar Panahi would be freed today. The news was contrasted by word that Panahi's incarceration may be extended and that the filmmaker would in fact begin a hunger strike.
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Confusion is surrounding an announcement in Cannes that detained Iranian director Jafar Panahi would be freed today. The news was contrasted by word that Panahi's incarceration may be extended and that the filmmaker would in fact begin a hunger strike.

The dramatic and conflicting information gripped a press conference here today with fellow Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The leading Iranian filmmaker spoke out in solidarity with Panahi this afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival, advocating on behalf of the freedom of filmmakers in Iran.

"The [Iranian] government does not accept the independence of filmmakers and the independent filmmaker," Kiarostami said this afternoon during a press conference. "They will not approve our films if they don't like our films. My films go overseas because of the fact that I have contacts overseas and they are unable to control this."

Abbas Kiarostami, an internationally acclaimed auteur who is in Cannes with his competition film, "Certified Copy," was joined by stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell at a press conference this afternoon where he made the announcement. His own film, which will have its gala premiere at the Cannes Film Festival tonight in France, was banned by Iranian authorities. Before the formal press conference began, he read a statement about Panahi's detention and the plight of other filmmakers who are currently being silenced in Iran.

"First of all, I don't need to go into too much detail, but I'm taking some moments to talk about Jafar Panahi. I got a message from Jafar's wife and we're hoping he might be freed today and, of course, if that does happen later today, that will be good news and hopefully I'll be able to give that good news. The fact that a filmmaker has been imprisoned - that is, of course, intolerable," Kiarostami said, "I believe that one cannot be indifferent but one should not give up hope either. There will be a moment that in the face of such resistance, an answer will have to be given to these demands."

In today's statement, he continued, "In March, I published an open letter that only appeared in one site in Iran and in the New York Times in the USA. In it, I alluded to Jafar Panahi's situation, but also all Iranian independent filmmakers who are held and cannot work. The responsiblity is on the authorities who keep them imprisoned. If Jafar remains in jail then at least we need an explanation. How can a filmmaker be held for a film and even a film that has not even made? In conclusion, I apologize to the crew of this film and all of you who have come here to talk about my film, "Certified Copy"... We'll do a couple of questions concerning this and then we'll talk about my film."

With that, a journalist who did not have a microphone and was inaudible to the translation provided in the press conference room told Kiarostami that in fact, the director was not being freed and was actually going on a hunger strike. Outside the press conference room, indieWIRE spoke with a person familiar with the situation that is currently unfolding as emails arrive from Iran about Panahi's detention.

Iranian authorities have apparently extended Panahi's detention for another two months, the source told indieWIRE, and have made additional threats against the director.

Earlier this month, a leading group of filmmakers that included Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch and others signed a petition calling for Panahi's release.

As for his own safety, Abbas Kiarostami was asked if he feared being detained by Iranian authorities, but said that he didn't.

Abbas Kiarostami's letter, published in the New York Times on March 9th, was provided by the filmmaker at the press conference in Cannes today. He asked that it be published in its entirety around the world and it is available on the next page.

Letter from Abbas Kiarostami:

I don’t quite know to whom I am addressing this letter, but I do know why I’m writing it and I believe that under the circumstances it is both critical and inevitable because two Iranian filmmakers, both of whom are vital to the Iranian wave of independent cinema, have been incarcerated.

As a filmmaker of the same independent cinema, it has been years since I lost hope of ever screening my films in my country. By making my own low-budget and personal films, it has also been years since I lost all hope of receiving any kind of aid or assistance from the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture, the custodian of Iranian cinema.

In order to make a living, I have turned to photography and use that income to make short and low-budget films. I don’t even object to their illegal reproduction and distribution because that is my only means of communicating with my own people. For years now I have not even objected to this lack of attention from the ministry and cinema tic authorities .

Even if we choose to disregard the fact that for years now, the cinematic administrators of the country, who constitute the main cultural body of the government, have differentiated between their own filmmakers (insiders) and independent filmmakers (outsiders), I am still of the opinion that they are oblivious of Iranian independent cinema. Filmmaking is not a crime. It is our sole means of making a living and thus not a choice, but a vital necessity.

I have found my own solutions to the problem. Independent of the conventional and customary support granted to the cinematic community at large, I make my own short and independent films with hopes of gaining some credit for the people I love and a name for the country I come from. Sometimes the necessity to work calls for the making of films beyond the borders of my country, which is ultimately not out of personal choice or taste.

However, others, like Jafar Panahi, have for years tried to summon official government support, exploring the same frustrating path, only to be confronted with the same closed doors. He too has for years held hopes of obtaining public screenings for his films and receiving official aid and assistance from the relevant governmental bodies. He still believes that based on the merits of his films and the acclaim they have brought the country, he can seek legal solutions to the problem. The Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture is directly responsible for what is happening to Jafar Panahi and his like. Any wrongdoing on his part, if there is any at all, is a direct result of the mismanagement of officials at the cinematic department of the Ministry of Guidance and it’s inadequate policies which in no way leave any choice for the filmmaker other than to resort to means that jeopardize his situation as a filmmaker. He too makes a living through cinema.

For him too, filmmaking is a vital necessity. He needs to make himself heard and has the right to expect cinematic officials to facilitate the process, rather than become the major obstacles themselves. Perhaps the officials at the ministry can not at present be of help in solving Jafar Panahi’s dilemma, but they need to know that they are and have been responsible all these years, for the dreadful consequences and unpleasant and anti-cultural reflections of such policies in the world media.

I may not be an advocate of Jafar Panahi’s radical and sensational methods but I do know that the cause for his plight is not a result of choice but an inevitable [compulsion].

He is paying for the conduct of officials who have for years closed all doors on him, leaving open small passages and dead end paths.

Jafar Panahi’s problem will eventually be solved but there are numerous young people who have chosen the art of cinema as their means of expression and careers.

This is where the duty of the government and the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture, as the government’s main cultural body, becomes even more critical, for they face a large group of Iranian youth who aim to work independently and away from complicated official procedures and existing prejudices.

Jafar Panahi and Mahmoud Rasoulof are two filmmakers of the Iranian independent cinema, a cinema that for the past quarter of a century has served as an essential cultural element in expanding the name of this country across the globe. They belong to an expanded world culture, and are a part of international cinematic culture. I wish for their immediate release from prison knowing that the impossible is possible. My heartfelt wish is that artists no longer be imprisoned in this country because of their art and that the independent and young Iranian cinema no longer faces obstacles, lack of support, attention and prejudice.

This is your responsibility and the ultimate definition of your existence.