Jafar Panahi Sentenced to 6 Years in Jail, 20 Years of Silence

David Hudson

Shocking and terrible news from Tehran today. Farideh Gheirat, a lawyer representing several of the politicians, journalists and artists detained during the protests that immediately followed the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election, has told the ISNA news agency (as reported by Reuters and the AFP) that Jafar Panahi has been sentenced to six years in jail and that his "social rights," including "making movies, writing scripts, foreign travel and giving interviews to domestic and foreign media, have been taken away for 20 years."

"Panahi, an outspoken supporter of Iran's opposition green movement, was convicted of gathering, colluding and propaganda against the regime," reports Saeed Kamali Dehghan. "Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia university, told the Guardian the sentence showed Iran's leaders could not tolerate the arts. 'This is a catastrophe for Iran's cinema,' he said. 'Panahi is now exactly in the most creative phase of his life and by silencing him at this sensitive time, they are killing his art and talent. Iran is sending a clear message by this sentence that they don't have any tolerance and can't bear arts, philosophy or anything like that. This is a sentence against the whole culture of Iran. They want the artists to sit at their houses and stop creating art. This is a catastrophe for a whole nation."

Gheirat has announced that she will appeal this decision, so we do have some hope that this incredibly harsh sentence will not stand. Panahi was one of several mourners who'd gathered near the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan in a Tehran cemetery who were arrested in July 2009. So, too, was filmmaker Muhammad Rasoulof, who has also been sentenced to six years today. When Panahi was released that summer, his passport was revoked and he was forbidden to leave the country. In March of this year, he was arrested again because, as the Iranian culture minister put it, he "was making a film against the regime and it was about the events that followed election." Throughout the ordeal, prominent filmmakers, film societies and festivals formally protested Panahi's detainment, and finally, in May, he was released on bail.

The speech he delivered during his hearing in November has been widely cited and quoted, and you can read it in full at Current Conflicts. Here's just a bit: "You are putting me on trial for making a film that, at the time of our arrest, was only 30 percent shot. You must have heard that the famous creed, 'There is no god, except Allah,' turns into blasphemy if you only say the first part and omit the second part. In the same vein, how can you establish that a crime has been committed by looking at 30 percent of the rushes for a film that has not been edited yet?... I, Jafar Panahi, declare once again that I am an Iranian, I am staying in my country and I like to work in my own country. I love my country, I have paid a price for this love too, and I am willing to pay again if necessary. I have yet another declaration to add to the first one. As shown in my films, I declare that I believe in the right of 'the other' to be different, I believe in mutual understanding and respect, as well as in tolerance; the tolerance that forbid me from judgment and hatred. I don't hate anybody, not even my interrogators."

Earlier this month, TIFF Cinematheque ran a retrospective of Panahi's work: "With five critically acclaimed and copiously awarded features to his name, Panahi is one of the major figures of the New Iranian cinema; once the protégé to Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi has forged a style and path all is own. His cohesive body of work owes much to Italian neo-realism, with his documentary style and preference for mostly non-professional actors, and a fierce belief in human and social rights."

One of the films screened was The Accordian, a short that's Panahi's contribution to Then and Now: Beyond Borders and Differences, an omnibus film supported by the United Nations; the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September. Panahi: "The Accordion is the story of humankind’s materialistic need to survive in a pretentious religion. In it, a boy is prevented from playing for reasons of religious prohibition, which he accepts in order to survive. But the main character of the film is the girl or, perhaps, in my view, the symbol of the next generation."


The White Meadows, directed by Mohammad Rasoulof and edited by Jafar Panahi.


Updates, 12/21: "The social brutality, cultural nullity, political arrogance and geopolitical incompetence of this move is breathtaking," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "To silence an artist, and indeed to alienate possible constituencies of liberal sympathy for Iran in the west, is fantastically crass. The Berlin film festival has already invited Panahi to join its jury in February 2011, for a start. Berlin, Cannes, Venice, London, Edinburgh, Sundance, Telluride and every film festival in the world should make Panahi their jury president, and keep doing so for every year this gross injustice is maintained. Jeremy Hunt, our culture secretary, should make representations. The Index On Censorship should clearly support Panahi.... Panahi is an important, powerful voice. It is disgusting that it should be silenced by the malign clumsiness of the state. British cinemas should continue to show Panahi's films, to remind the world of the humane, civilised artist that is being silenced. How about a protest retrospective at the BFI Southbank?"

Similarly, the New Yorker's Richard Brody: "Let there be no film festival at which these horrors go unmentioned; let journalists and scholars who speak freely about films preface their public remarks with a reminder of the cruelty that is inflicted on these filmmakers who may never be able to do so again."

"The oppression of filmmakers isn't new, of course," writes David Bordwell, but "Panahi is in an unusually vulnerable situation. He is set to be imprisoned for preparing a film.... You can get some grim satisfaction for knowing that movies still matter in some parts of the world. Films have the power to shock bureaucrats and threaten authoritarian regimes. Instead of being simply 'assets' or 'content' to be extruded across platforms and shoved through release windows, cinema is in some places taken seriously as political critique.... Lest we Americans savor our superior virtue, consider this: Four months before 9/11, Panahi was traveling between Hong Kong and Argentina and stopped over in New York." There, at JFK, he was arrested, handcuffed, leg-chained and led to a plane back to Hong Kong. Bordwell points us to Stephen Teo's account of the incident in Senses of Cinema.

"The members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association wish to express their sadness and outrage at the sentences handed out to filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof... and we encourage all others who support freedom in the arts to speak out as well."

"[T]wo Iranian filmmakers who are debuting politically-charged films at next month's Sundance Film Festival say that a groundswell of publicity and support from the international film community could play an important role for Panahi as he appeals yesterday's harsh 6-year prison sentence and 20-year ban from filmmaking," reports Mike Fleming at Deadline.com. "'The support will help,' said Ali Samadii Ahadi, director of the documentary The Green Wave. 'It is on us to make noise and create pressure so they will understand they have a duty to the Iranian population, to care about human rights and the rights of artists.... If upheld, this sentence not only means the end of Jafar's career, but also the end of film making in Iran completely. It this can do this to him, a very famous person, they will do it to any artist.'... Another Iranian-born filmmaker bringing a film to Sundance and looking for distribution is Maryam Keshavarz, whose film Circumstance explores the complex relationship of two girls in Iran as they grapple with sexual rebellion and volatile adolescence.... She met Panahi at festivals and was shocked at the sentence he received.... 'It is devastating to see such a symbol of Iranian filmmaking incarcerated, but it is vital for the international film community to support him. Even if he's prohibited from making films from 20 years, they cannot stop his mind, or his writing.'"

Updates, 12/22: Berlinale Director Dieter Kosslick: "We are very concerned and filled with indignation over the conviction of Jafar Panahi. It is shocking that a renowned director is punished so severely for his artistic work. Jafar Panahi can be sure he has our full support."

News of the sentencing of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rassoulof "has been received with great concern and outrage by the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The IFFR calls on the Iranian authorities to revise the sentence and pleas for the release of Panahi and Rassoulof as well as for cancellation of the ban on making films.... The IFFR hopes that protests will sound worldwide and calls on every cinephile to condemn this outrageous conviction."

"Germany Wednesday condemned the jailing of Iranian filmmaker and vocal opposition backer Jafar Panahi as 'scandalous' and 'unacceptable' and called on Tehran to lift the sentence," reports the AFP. "'Sentencing Jafar Panahi to six years in jail is scandalous,' said Markus Loening, in charge of Germany's human rights policy, in a statement issued by the foreign ministry. 'It is simply unacceptable and all the more disconcerting given that Jafar Panahi's films have offered many people in recent years an insight into Iranian society and therefore contributed considerably to intercultural dialogue.'"

Sign the petition: "This sentence both revolts and scandalises us. So, let us call upon all filmmakers, actors and actresses, screenwriters and producers, all motion-picture professionals as well as every man and woman who loves freedom and for whom human rights are fundamental, to join us in demanding the lifting of this sentence."

Updates, 12/23: "For most of its 32-year existence, the Islamic Republic has had an uneasy relationship with its home-grown film industry," writes Richard Corliss in Time, where he gives us a brief rundown of some of the country's greatest cinematic achievements before walking us through Panahi's filmography. He reminds us, too, that Panahi said just this August, "A finished film, well, it can get banned, but not the director." To which he adds: "Now we know a director — this most estimable one — can get banned, imprisoned, shut up and locked in. And if all the muscle of the United States and the European Union can't stop Iran from its nuclear dream, how can a directors' petition convince the Ayatullahs to give freedom to a filmmaker who dared to tell the truth about his country?"

Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman: "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?"

"Two more film festivals have added their voices to the chorus of international protests," reports Nick Holdworth for Variety. "Greece's Thessaloniki and the Czech Republic's Karlovy Vary Thursday joined the international condemnation of film professionals worldwide."

"Martin Scorsese recently issued a statement condemning the actions of the Iranian government and voicing his support for Panahi and Rasoulof," reports Kevin Jagernauth at the Playlist. Scorsese: "'It's depressing to imagine a society with so little faith in its own citizens that it feels compelled to lock up anyone with a contrary opinion. As filmmakers, we all need to stand up for Panahi and Rasoulof. We should applaud their courage and campaign aggressively for their immediate release.'" Also, "Paul Haggis is working with Amnesty International in a petition that will be unveiled after Christmas."


Updates, 12/24: "What the Islamic Republic is in fact silencing is not just Panahi but the sort of cinema he best represents," writes Hamid Dabashi in the Guardian. "In his last statement to the court before sentencing, Panahi said: 'You are putting on trial not just me, but Iranian social, humanist and artistic cinema — a cinema in which there is no absolutely good or absolutely evil person, a cinema that is not in the service of power or wealth, a cinema that does not condone or condemn anyone... a cinema that is inspired by [addressing] social malaise and ultimately reaches out to humanity.' It is precisely that cinema that the Islamic Republic fears most. Look at those cinematic luminaries who have been forced to leave their homeland over the lifetime of this regime: Amir Naderi, Bahman Farmanara, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marzieh Meshkini, Bahman Ghobadi, Samira Makhmalbaf, Susan Taslimi, Parviz Sayyad and Reza Allamehzadeh. The list is a long one. Those who have remained inside and continue to work are subject to systematic and vicious harassments, as Bahram Beizai, the doyen of Iranian cinema, has been.... This is a slow and torturous murdering of the creative soul of a nation."

Members of Directors UK, including the group's president, Paul Greengrass, send an open letter into the Guardian: "We express our sense of solidarity with Jafar and Mohammad and call upon the Iranian government to immediately rescind the sentences and to release them without delay."

Update, 12/26: On Tuesday, "the UN General Assembly expressed its 'deep concern' about 'recurring human rights violations in Iran' by approving a resolution that noted the severe limitations on freedom of thought and freedom of religion in Iran," reports Omid Memarian. "The resolution criticized arbitrary arrests as well as the long prison sentences handed out for prisoners of conscience. 'Mr Panahi's sentence is an alarming message to all in the Iranian film industry,' said Narges Kalhor, an Iranian film director, who is also the daughter of Mehdi Kalhor, the cultural adviser to Ahmadinejad. Narges Kalhor fled Iran last year, protesting the lack of freedom of speech. 'They are basically saying that you are either with us, making films for us, or you should sit at home,' she said, adding that directors and writers have been systematically barred from work.... 'The government is saying that if you don't think like us, leave the country before you end up in jail — or be banned from your profession for life,' another journalist in Iran told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. 'Panahi did not leave the country, and now he has to pay the price.' The journalist and movie critic described the censorship and arrests as 'nothing but Islamic McCarthyism.'... According to Iranian laws, filming in an enclosed, private space does not require a permit from the government. 'I never expected such a harsh sentence,' Farideh Gheirat, Panahi's lawyer, told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview from Tehran. 'We hope the appeals court reverses the verdict; it's not fair at all.'"

Update, 12/27: As Deadline.com's Mike Fleming reports, Amnesty International has now formally announced its efforts to issue a formal protest against these sentences and the ongoing imprisonment of Panahi and Rasoulof. They'll be working with Paul Haggis, Sean Penn, Harvey Weinstein and AIUSA spokesperson Nazanin Boniadi. From AIUSA's press release: "Also involved in the campaign is Iranian-American journalist and former Amnesty International 'prisoner of conscience' Roxana Saberi, who was once held in Iran's notorious Evin prison on charges of 'spreading propaganda' against the regime. She was freed after Amnesty International and other organizations rallied for her unconditional release. Saberi has enlisted the support of prominent Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and legendary Iranian pop singer Googoosh, who have signed the Amnesty International petition."

Update, 1/3: "Cine Foundation International was launched on December 10 as both a non-profit film company and human rights NGO aiming to 'empower open consciousness through cinema,'" writes Anne Thompson. "They are wasting little time, having announced a campaign calling for the release of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The campaign will include protest films that speak to human rights issues in Iran and throughout the world, six of which are commissioned feature-length, plus twenty shorts. Participating filmmakers may act anonymously or through pseudonyms since voicing their stories can be dangerous. The films, which will address themes of nation, identity, self, spiritual culture, censorship and imprisonment, will be aimed for public, web and various exhibition media."

For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


DailyJafar PanahiNews
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.