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by Anthony Kaufman
February 9, 2011 2:35 AM
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Why the Iranian Filmmakers Are In Limbo

It's been two months since the Iranian Ministry of Justice sentenced acclaimed filmmakers Jafar Panahi (“The Circle”) and Mohammad Rasoulof (“Iron Island”) to six years in prison. Whether the verdict will hold has much to do with forces ranging from film festival support to global politics to saving face.

Panahi and Rasoulof are currently out on bail, presumably awaiting the outcome of an appeal that had to be filed, according to Islamic law, within 20 days of the Revolutionary Court’s verdict. But according to one recent report in Variety, Rasoulof, in the interim, has actually been given approval by the Ministry of Culture to make a new film. Such contradictions indicate the complexity of the filmmakers’ situations and the public relations problems that their cases have created for the Islamic Republic.

“The Iranian government seems to have decided to keep the filmmakers in limbo for now,” says Jamsheed Akrami, a U.S.-based Iranian cinema scholar, who frequently translates for Panahi. “They are reluctant to rescind the verdicts, but they don’t want to send them to jail either, fearing the domestic and international backlash.”

So far, that has included petitions and protests from around the world. And the Asia Society recently announced that it will run a film series dedicated to Panahi starting February 25.

Experts suggest that the support that the filmmakers have received, both abroad and at home, has not gone unnoticed by the country’s decisionmakers. At Iran’s International Fajr Film Festival, which began over the weekend, for example, opening-night honoree Masoud Kimiaii reportedly declared, “I, at 70 years old, request the judicial system of Iran [to] humbly ask them to appeal the verdict of Jafar Panahi.”

Akrami suggests the filmmakers may be 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,” says Akrami, who cites 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, agrees. “Is it possible that there’s infighting going on? Sure,” he says. “And yes, there are elements within the regime that may think differently.”

According to Sanei, it’s quite possible that a higher appellate court ruling will change the initial verdict, which also banned Panahi from making films for 20 years.

However, Sanei says it’s extremely rare for verdicts from Iran’s Revolutionary Courts, which handle national security cases such as Panahi and Rasoulof’s, to be completely overturned. More likely is that the sentences would be reduced.

However, there’s no telling how long the process will take. “It’s not unusual for delays,” says Sanei, citing the recent prolonged trial of three American hikers who were arrested and charged for spying 18 months ago. (It was just this Sunday that two of the campers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, finally got the chance to plead "not guilty" in Revolutionary Court.)

In the meantime, international film festivals such as the Berlinale, where Panahi is a juror in absentia, are continuing to put on the pressure. Several events and screenings in Panahi and Rousolof’s honor are taking place this week; on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, the festival will showcase Panahi’s prize-winning Berlinale entry “Offside.”

Further complicating matters is the public uprising in Egypt. While the Iranian regime officially supports the Egyptian revolution, “they’re also a little nervous about the ramifications,” says Sanei.

The situation could get even thornier on Feb. 14, when Iran’s opposition leaders are hoping to hold a mass demonstration in support of the people in Tunisia and Egypt. Iranian officials have not yet agreed to give a permit.

While Panahi and Rasoulof’s cases indicate the latest in a string of harsher measures being taken by the government to quell dissent, Akrami believes the strategy will ultimately backfire. “This may have an immediate chilling effect, but I don’t think it’ll work in the long run,” he says. “Living in a country under authoritarian rule, the Iranian filmmakers have developed a natural tendency to see making a film as a chance to say something about themselves and their society.”

As Panahi has said, “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 said, "and I cannot be indifferent to what is happening around me.”

[Editor's Note: The Asia Society in New York City will be holding a retrospective of Panahi's work from February 25 to March 11. The retrospective will feature four films and a panel discussion exploring creative expression in Iran. Panahi will also be recognized at the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival. One of his films will screen in the Forum, Berlinale Shorts, Generation and Panorama sections of the Berlinale.]

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