In a wide-ranging press conference held during his first visit to Iran, Oliver Stone expressed appreciation for Iran’s extensive history and recent cinematic accomplishments, criticized American policy toward the Middle East, and voiced his wish that director Jafar Panahi would be allowed to attend the Cannes Film Festival to witness the premiere of his latest film.
Spending a week in Iran as a guest of the Fajr International Film Festival, Stone answered questions from a crowd of approximately 150 Iranian and a few foreign journalists in the Charsou complex in Tehran. He started out by saying that the early part of his visit took him to other Iranian cities, including Isfahan and he was impressed at the hospitality he had been shown and the “warmth” he felt from people of all walks of life. He said he had long been interested in Iran and its 2500-year history and was fortunate that the invitation from Fajr came when his schedule would allow his visit.
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The press conference was his third public appearance since arriving in Tehran on Monday, when he participated in a master class at Tehran University. On Tuesday, he was interviewed for an hour on live Iranian TV, during which he ignored a request to avoid the subject of politics and criticized the Trump administration for including John Bolton, an anti-Iran hawk, on its national security team.
Asked in his press conference if he planned either dramatic or documentary films about the current situation in the Middle East, or profiles of any of its leaders similar to those he did of Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin, Stone said did not. He also denounced what he called the “lies…of the Israeli right-wing press” including reports that he had requested an interview with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006.
His comments on Panahi’s situation were not his first encounter with the Iranian filmmaker’s difficulties. In 2010, Stone joined other prominent American filmmakers in signing a petition to protest the Iranian government’s arrest of the director of “The Circle” and “Offside,” which resulted from Panahi’s political activism following the “stolen election” of 2009. Though he was released, the government subsequently put him on trial, where he received a sentence that banned him from making films for 20 years (he is also banned from traveling internationally). Nevertheless, he has subsequently made four features unofficially; the latest, “Three Faces,” is scheduled to debut in Cannes’ Official Competition in May.
Last week, Iran’s Directors Union wrote a public letter to Iranian president Rouhani asking that Panahi be allowed to travel to the French film festival. (According to an Iranian official who spoke to this reporter, many people in the government, including Iranian ambassadors to foreign countries, support Panahi’s case, but the ban is being enforced by hardliners in the judiciary. It is unclear whether it might be lifted prior to Cannes.)
Stone indicated that he found it remarkable that Panahi has been able to make four features given his circumstances. He said he supports “freedom of expression” generally and feels that Panahi should be allowed to attend Cannes, where his debut, “The White Balloon,” became the first Iranian film to win a major prize when it took the Camera d’Or in 1995. “The biggest victory is to make movies in the first place,” Stone said.
Stone has been criticized in the conservative Iranian press for directing “Alexander,” which concerns the ancient Greek king who conquered Persian empire. Answering a reporter’s question about whether the film is “anti-Iranian,” he first said that he thinks the film has been judged on its original theatrical release version but that his vision is much better represented by the longer director’s cut released in 2014, which he said has sold millions of copies. He added that Alexander of Macedon did not set out to “rape” Persia but had an idea of an ecumenical worldwide empire that the filmmaker compared to the United Nations.
The conservative press also criticized remarks made at his master class indicating that Stone finds Iranian films “boring.” Stone said that his comments had been misinterpreted and that he was speaking about certain “festival films,” not Iranian films. He said he’s well aware of the Iranian cinema’s many recent accomplishments and is watching new Iranian films at Fajr with great interest. He also noted that, at last year’s Busan Film Festival, he headed a jury in a section where the co-winner of the top prize was Mohsen Gharaei’s “Blockage,” which Stone said he admired for its depiction of corruption in Tehran.
Regarding American policy in the Middle East, Stone said that he made much of his viewpoint known in his film “W.,” which concerns the administration of George W. Bush and its decision to invade Iraq in 2003. He pointed to a scene in that film in which vice president Dick Cheney (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is asked about the invasion’s exit strategy and replies, “There is no exit.” Stone said he thinks American Middle East policy has been disastrous since that era because it’s guided by a “neoconservative” philosophy of “creative destruction.” “It’s the same for Bush, Obama and Trump,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s president.”
Alluding to the current treaty with Iran restricting its nuclear program, he said that the United States has exited or violated many important treaties including the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and various treaties concerning the Middle East. “America is very good at breaking treaties,” he said. “Ask the Indians.”