Iran's decision to allow the film industry guild to reopen is raising hopes among human rights activists for the freedom of acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been serving a six-year sentence since 2010 for “propaganda against the state.”
The 53-year-old auteur behind “This is Not a Film” and “The White Balloon” is also banned from making movies in Iran for 20 years because he voiced support for the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 2009.
The 5,000-member film industry guild, House of Cinema, reopened two years after it was shuttered by the country’s hardline conservative regime, according to Iranian state news. The guild was accused of making rules that weren't approved by the Iranian government.
Deputy Culture Minister Hojatollah Ayoubi says Iran’s newly elected leader, President Hassan Rouhani, supports Iranian filmmaking. So far, Rouhani appears to have taken a more moderate approach than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"When a cultural issue—like the one about the House of Cinema—becomes a political one, that is (because) the situation was not managed properly," Ayoubi told state news outlets.
Panahi is among many dissident voices in Iran that faced heavy repercussions following the summer of 2009, when millions of Iranians, young and old, joined what came to be known as the Green Movement and poured into the streets to protest the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Opposition supporters were incredulous of the result after the vote was returned suspiciously quickly, and oddly in Ahmadinejad’s favor considering a sour economy and the fact bread and butter issues were frustrating many Iranian voters.
Actors and filmmakers around the world, including Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, have called on the Iranian government to release Panahi.
At the Berlinale film festival in 2011, actress Isabella Rossellini read a letter from Panahi which read, in part:
“They have deprived me of seeing the world for twenty years… They have condemned me to twenty years of silence. Yet in my dreams, I scream for a time when we can tolerate each other, respect each other’s opinions, and live for each other.”
Panahi's house arrest and the ban on filmmaking haven't stopped him. His film about the absurdity of his captivity, shot in his home, called "This is Not A Film" was smuggled out of the country in a cake last year.
Another smuggled film, his latest work "Closed Curtain," was one of the films played on opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
Panahi’s earlier works “The White Balloon” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1995 and the Venice Film Festival’s coveted Golden Lion prize for his 2000 Film “Circle.”
As a storyteller and cultural critic, Panahi is admired for weaving subtle social commentary through his depictions of the country, which has too often proven impenetrable or forbidding for media and artists.
In his film “Offside,” Panahi takes the viewer along for the dangerous ride when female soccer-lovers defy the Iran’s strict rules to sneak into a match and cheer for their country. The film is based on real-life struggles of Iranians.
It is illegal for women to attend public soccer games in Iran because the players are dressed in shorts—a lesser known taboo of Islam’s dress code is that men are supposed to dress modestly as well, so as not to inspire dirty thoughts with their bare arms and legs. The rule is loosened in family and gender-segregated settings, like soccer games where—like the tree houses of your youth—there are no girls allowed.
In Panahi’s film, the stark conflict between nationalism and the country’s restrictive Islamic law is evidenced by the women’s chosen camoflage: hair tucked in caps, they wrap themselves in flags and paint their faces with national colors.
In one scene, an old, blind soccer fan is questioned by a rowdy young fan, who can't understand why a blind man wouldn't just stay home to listen to the game on the radio. "I'm worried for you, what if something happens to you?" the young man says, borrowing a for-your-own-good patriarchal mantra that's often used to explain government repression.
As the woman disguised as a male fan watches, the blind man responds: “What are you saying, son? The stadium is something else. You yell, you cheer, the wave hits you like a sea...”
“And everything else aside, you can curse! You can curse people and the world, and say whatever you want and no one can stop you!”
The bus full of male Iranian soccer fans erupts into cheers for the idea of being free, somewhere, somehow.
One hopes that soon, Panahi will have the freedom of his blind soccer fan at the stadium.