On The Imprisonment of Iranian Filmmakers: A Moral Option For Iran and Any Government Presuming to Silence Its Artists

I've asked film curator Milos Stehlik, of Chicago's Facets.org to write a guest essay in the earnest service of furnishing a dually historical and moral context by which the government of Iran -- and indeed any government which presumes to silence its artists -- could re-visit its incarceration of filmmakers Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, and Panahi's attorney, Farideh Gheirat. Both filmmakers are renowned within, and outside of, the borders of Iran, and it is with a sense of respectful cooperation, and without chauvinistic finger-pointing that filmmakers, artists and activists the world over are uniting in their request.

Mr. Stehlik rightly cites instances of state repression of artists in several nations which have drastically different cultures -- including the United States. He also cites a moment in recent history wherein Iran's very soil served as a haven through which The Color of Pomegranates, a Soviet-banned film by a then-imprisoned filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, safely passed to France.

It is my total (albeit, naive-sounding, to nihilists masquerading as realists) belief that there is remedy to this incident; the Iranian government can make this happen without appearing to have equivocated, and frankly, without appearing as anomalous in their imprisonment of artists, because again, they are not an anomaly; history is far too rife with such instances, the world over.

If the nation of Iran -- and any nation silencing and or imprisoning its artists -- were to act boldly, and with an indifference to our planet's history of State Repression, I daresay that what She would gain far outstrips what She fears losing. Because you can't lose what you never totally had, namely the human heart, which, like the universal constant of water, will always seek -- and eventually find -- its own level. This is a tide of eventuality that no amount of statecraft can stem, in perpetuity.

History's grim realities might leave one few illusions about the chances of the sentences imposed upon Panahi and Rasoulof being overturned. Nonetheless, a collective, worldwide action must and will endeavor to make manifest -- with a lucidity borne of a belief that speaks an undeniable and humbling truth to those with the power to imprison -- that all governments presuming to limit the freedom of artists will no longer be tolerated.

I invite individuals to send their translations of Mr. Stehlik's essay, which I will also post. I further invite for posting, translations of Mr. Panahi's declaration (see link below), as these simple, courageous words, fueled and tempered in equal amounts by an unshakable, non-partisan patriotism, serve as a template for all repressed artists, irrespective of the borders of their homeland.

On December 18, 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (Offside, Crimson Gold, The Circle, White Balloon) and his lawyer Farideh Gheirat were served a court verdict sentencing them to six years in prison; to "complete his punishment", Panahl was sentenced to a 20-year ban on making films, writing any type of screenplay, traveling abroad, or interviews with the media. The charges were shrouded in the same vernacular used by many governments throughout history: "Assembly and collusion and propagation against the regime." Mohammad Rasoulof (Iron Island, The Twilight) was also sentenced to six years on the same charges.

Panahi was arrested on July 30, 2009, when he and a group of filmmakers visited a cemetery to pay respect to some of those killed during Iran's post-election protests. Panahi was arrested at his home again on March 1, 2010, along with 18 family members and Rasoulof. Panahi remained in jail until May 25, when he was released on bail of $200,000. He has not been allowed to travel outside Iran. In his defense, he wrote an eloquent letter to the court.

This imprisonment potentially silences two essential voices in global cinema, unless we, in the global arts community, stand up.

When I heard of the arrests, I flashed back to another time and place: I was in my early 20s, and my friend, the Czech film director Jan Kadar (who won an Academy Award for The Shop on Main Street) courageously told an audience that his primary concern was with young filmmakers living in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, who were not permitted to work, or whose films were simply shelved. Would these young talents cease to exist?

That's the core issue in the horrendous case presently playing out in Iran.

Why? An authoritarian state needs no justification to persecute and imprison people for reasons outside justice or logic; throughout history, we've seen countless artists, writers, filmmakers who were censored, impoverished and unjustly imprisoned or killed by The State.

Filmmakers like Panahi and Rasoulof see things as they are, not as The State might want these things to appear to be.

Like many of our colleagues at film festivals and cinémathèques worldwide, we were outraged when Panahi and Rasoulof were arrested, jailed, and now sentenced. We've decided to organize this protest screening and discussion on January 16 so that we and our audiences can fully grasp the context of what this blatant attempt to silence two artists means.

We all need to bear witness, and do so without smugness or self-satisfaction from the safety of our "free" world. Here, too, artists are silenced, if not by a court, then by the tyranny of the marketplace.

As Peter Sellars eloquently said several years ago, to be an artist or work in the arts is an extreme privilege -- and here, we have a unique moment to show support for filmmakers whose art, and whose very lives, are in grave peril.

Many years ago, Facets presented the American premiere of The Color of Pomegranates, the work of another then-imprisoned filmmaker, Sergei Paradjanov. Ironically, the print had been smuggled out to France via Iran. After 4 years of hard labor in a Soviet camp, Paradjanov was released, lived in poverty, made several films and died, his health probably broken by the time in prison. A worldwide protest, most notably in France, finally forced his release a year before his term was up.

In another irony, Panahi was handcuffed and held in custody at Kennedy Airport in New York while in transit from Hong Kong to South America in 2004 because - although he had visited the U.S. several times - his fingerprints were not on file.

We know what happens to filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, whose career included the politically controversial film To Live, which was banned by the Chinese government. After the ban, this once-bold filmmaker compromised, making films that were apolitical and more commercial, and he was appointed -- by the same government that morally condemned him -- chief orchestrator of the grand show at the opening of the Beijing Olympics.

These are but a few of many such cases, and, once again, The State has exercised its power to silence two artists. The films of neither filmmaker are directly political, but like many important films -- irrespective of the nation in which they are made -- they illuminate issues of inequality and injustice.

Once again, artistic voices and human lives are at stake.

A number of petitions to reverse the sentence have been started, including this petition organized by the Cannes Film Festival.