This week is the Persian New Year, a non-Islamic holiday in Iran that figures prominently in "The White Balloon," Jafar Panahi's debut film written by Abbas Kiarostami. It seems fortuitous that both Kiarostami and Panahi have been in the news lately, along with the embattled nuclear ambitions of their home country. I spoke with Kiarostami for this indieWIRE article and Panahi for this L.A. Times piece, and what I continually find is a people and a cinema that defies the news headlines.
I think many American journalists immediately take to Panahi's films because he represents a symbol of "banned" Iranian filmmakers. By focusing on Panahi, they're able to point to Iranian censorship and reinforce stereotypical notions of the country as some Islamo-fascist state. But, of course, it's so much more complicated than that. The fact that Kiarostami and Panahi can talk freely with U.S. journalists about their country bespeaks a whole lot more complexity about the country.
As Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi told me, "In general, nobody is minding the shop. There are sympathizers within the Ministry of Culture, there are supporters within the official ranks of the Islamic Republic. There are myriad ways in which filmmakers bypass the censorship, lie and cajole. It's important for us to cultivate a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of how censorship works in the Islamic Republic."
Both filmmakers seem sincerely worried that the U.S. will attack Iran, and they also both lament their own president for not fulfilling promises he has made to reinvigorate Iran's economy and help the poor. "It is a scary period," Kiarostami told me. "At no other time have people been talking about direct invasion of another country like now. Never have people died so much around us. At the same time, we're getting used to it, but we are pushing our limits. We can't be getting used to this. More and more, we talk about invading – and I don't care which side you're talking about."
Still, Panahi remains hopeful. "We do have aspirations for freedom," he said. "We would like to have a natural approach to resolving our problems in a peaceful manner. What exists is a will and a sense of aspiration of what we need to get to."