It was already shaping up to be a bad year for democracy, cinema and one film-maker in particular – Jafar Panahi, the 50-year-old Iranian director of, among others, The White Balloon (1995), The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006). Panahi, you will recall, was arrested and imprisoned in Iran on 1 March, along with his wife and daughter, in an attempt to subdue advocates of the opposition Green movement. This followed the decision to refuse him permission to participate in a forum on Iranian cinema at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Panahi was released on bail on 25 May, but has now been slapped with a six-year prison sentence for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. To add the mightiest of insults to this injury, Panahi has also been banned from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews, or leaving Iran for 20 years. I find it bizarrely difficult to comprehend this. I don’t know anything about Iranian law and its precedents, so I can’t comment on the likelihood of this ever being overturned, but the announcement chills the blood.
I have no doubt that this will prompt protest and opposition from the same international film-makers and actors who opposed Panahi’s imprisonment earlier this year – his numerous supporters then included Robert De Niro, Juliette Binoche, Michael Moore, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
The least that anyone in the industry can do is to keep Panahi’s name at the forefront of public discourse and to refuse to let his plight fade from view; we’re coming into awards season now, and it would be a pity if the media exposure that goes along with this self-congratulatory sideshow were not put to some positive use for once. Would it be too much to hope that anyone collecting a Bafta, an Oscar, a Golden Globe or even a Razzie might use the occasion to advertise their solidarity with Panahi?
(Although, before we let any self-righteousness creep into our indignation, we should remember that the west doesn’t have a spotless record in hospitality towards this most beleaguered film-maker. Panahi has had his share of mistreatment in the west: he was once kept shackled in a cell at JFK Airport by US immigration after refusing to be photographed and fingerprinted.)
The White Balloon, Panahi’s gentlest but, to my mind, most enduring film, is not available on DVD in the UK. But you can watch it here in eight parts.