'Manuscripts Don't Burn'

By Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA and Gregory Nava, Writer-Director, Member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- International Outreach Committee

Freedom of expression is both an essential human right and a foundational requirement for art. When the ability to create and share ideas is threatened, artistic freedom suffers, but so do commerce, education, governance and virtually all facets of a vibrant, productive society.

Unfortunately, repressive governments are well aware of the indestructible power of an idea that resonates with the populace, a notion captured unforgettably by Soviet-era writer and victim of Stalinist repression Mikhail Bulgakov with the phrase "Manuscripts don't burn" in The Master and Margarita. Today's repressive governments equally recognize that a compelling message communicated through an effective medium can inspire people to take action and transformentire regions.

Just a few weeks ago, the film community was dealt a serious blow with the detention of noted Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, seized by Russian security agents at his home in Crimea. Russian agents moved him to Moscow, to Lefortovo prison, where Stalin once sent many a victim during his "Great Purge."

We write out of a profound concern that Sentsov may be the most recent victim of Russia's systematic crackdown on free expression and to urge Russian authorities to release Sentsov if he has been detained on account of his peaceful opposition to Russian intervention in Crimea. Russian authorities have reportedly accused Sentsov of terrorism.

It may provide little solace to Sentsov in his current predicament, but he is far from alone, and we hope that by speaking out for him and mobilizing the human rights and film community we may help bring about his release.

Similarly, in Iran, numerous film directors and actors have found themselves at odds with the government over issues related to artistic expression. In June, documentary film maker and women's rights activist Mahnaz Mohammadi reportedly began a five-year sentence following a conviction for her alleged anti-government "propaganda."

In 2010, Iranian authorities arrested directors Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi on charges related to their filmmaking, and each man was sentenced to prison. Neither director has yet been required to start serving his sentence, but they are not free; Rasoulof's passport was confiscated in November and the threat of prison hangs over them both. They have been banned from any involvement in movies for 20 years. Despite the ban, courageously, Rasoulof made a film - completely "guerilla" style -- which criticized the Iranian security apparatus. The film is aptly titled "Manuscripts Don't Burn." The fates of the two directors remain unresolved.

There is also the case of Tibetan Filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen. He was imprisoned for six years as a result of his film "Leaving Behind Fear" in which he examined Tibetan attitudes towards the Dalai Lama and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. After being tortured and held without charge, he was sentenced for "inciting separatism." Although freed from prison last month, Dhondup Wangchen still faces other restrictions on his rights.

The silencing of filmmakers and other artists is a slap in the face of human rights defenders everywhere, and an ominous sign for both individual freedom and the wellbeing of a society. The protection of creative expression is not an exercise in preserving a vehicle of entertainment rather a fight for the most basic cornerstones of a free and open society, and that is why we demand justice for Sentsov, and for artists everywhere.

Steven W. Hawkins is the executive director of Amnesty International USA. Follow him on Twitter @StevenWHawkins.
Gregory Nava is a writer, director and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - International Outreach Committee.