Terrible news from Iran, as filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making movies for the next 20. The director of The White Balloon and Offside was arrested last March but freed on bail two months later after a high-wattage campaign that took center stage at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, though, he has been convicted, officially of “assembly and colluding to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” In reality, his crime was supporting the presidential campaign of Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition candidate who was defrauded of an election victory last spring by Ahmadinejad’s government and the mullahs backing him.
All is not lost for Panahi; his lawyer has said she will appeal. Panahi has refused to leave his native land, and if you’ve seen any of his films, you know that they’re steeped in the culture of Iran. It’s hard to imagine him being as good a filmmaker elsewhere.
Needless to say, this is the act of a pathetically backward theocratic regime that has always been afraid of its filmmakers, who rank among the world’s best. (I just watched Bahman Ghobadi’s film No One Knows About Persian Cats and was impressed by its depiction of Tehran’s surprisingly diverse musical culture, which is similarly under siege.) Anyone who cares at all about films must be outraged about this verdict. As we remember the best of filmmaking in 2010, we should also remember cinema’s power to expose uncomfortable truths about us, especially in the hands of an artist like Jafar Panahi. We all should pray to Allah for Iran’s deliverance from this unpopular and oppressive government.