When are Films Political? (Part 6): Jafar Panahi's Short Film in Venice

by Sydney Levine
August 10, 2010 9:29 AM
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By guest blogger, Peter Belsito

The Accordion - a short shot recently in Teheran by the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, will be screened on September 1st during the upcoming 67th edition of the Venice Film Festival.

"I am a social-minded filmmaker - stated Panahi - and I am sensitive to every new phenomenon which occurs in my society. Of course I react to it and, perhaps, The Accordion represents my reaction to the events surrounding me, and my way of observing reality."

The story is about two young street musicians whose accordion is taken away from them, due to an accident. This brief and forceful tale portrays the Iranian director's entire artistic world, and is a metaphor for the new generations who, led by understanding, prefer solidarity over conflicts.

"I strongly hope that Panahi will be able to join us in Venice - said Giorgio Gosetti, the General Delegate of Giornate degli Autori - in order to be deservedly acclaimed by those who love cinema at its best, exactly 10 years after he was awarded the Golden Lion for his Dayereh".

Panahi is known as one of the leading lights of modern Iranian cinema. He won the Camera d'Or award at the Cannes film festival in 1995 for his debut feature The White Balloon and took the Golden Lion prize at Venice for his 2000 drama The Circle. His other films include Crimson Gold and Offside.

Panahi's productions are largely funded by European money as a means of bypassing what he sees as government interference. His films are banned in Iran, where the authorities regard them as implicitly critical of the current regime. "[The authorities] think that anyone who is independent or not following their views is a spy of the west," Panahi told the Guardian at the time of Crimson Gold's release. "Paid by the west. Spreading western propaganda."

The filmmaker is known to have criticised the outcome of last year's disputed presidential elections, which returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and sparked opposition protests across the country. Since then his activities appear to have been curtailed. In February, organisers of the Berlin film festival claimed that a travel ban had prevented the director from attending the event.

On 30 July 2009, Panahi was arrested at the cemetery in Tehran where mourners had gathered near the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan. He was later released, but his passport was revoked and he was banned from leaving the country. In February 2010 his request to travel to the 60th Berlin Film Festival to participate in the panel discussion on "Iranian Cinema: Present and Future. Expectations inside and outside of Iran" was denied. On 1 March 2010, Panahi was arrested again. He was taken from his home along with his wife Tahereh Saidi, daughter Solmaz Panahi and 15 of his friends by plainclothes officers to Evin Prison.

There was a worldwide outcry at his arrest.

On 8 March 2010, a group of well-known Iranian producers, directors and actors visited Panahi's family to show their support and call for his immediate release. After more than a week in captivity, Panahi was finally allowed to call his family. On 18 March 2010 he has been allowed to have visitors, including his family and lawyer. Iran's culture minister said on 14 April 2010 that Panahi was arrested because he "was making a film against the regime and it was about the events that followed election." But in an interview with AFP in mid-March, Panahi's wife, Tahereh Saeedi, denied that he was making a film about post-election events, saying: "The film was being shot inside the house and had nothing to do with the regime."

In mid-March, 50 Iranian directors, actors and artists signed a petition seeking Panahi's release.

He was named a member of the jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, but because of his imprisonment he could not attend and his chair was symbolically kept empty.
On May 18, 2010, Jafar Panahi sent a message to Abbas Baktiari, director of the Pouya Cultural Center, an Iranian-French cultural organization in Paris. Panahi wrote that he has been mistreated in prison and his family threatened, and as a result has begun a hunger strike.

On 25 May 2010 Panahi was released on $200,000 bail.

Panahi was born in Mianeh, Iran. He was ten years old when he wrote his first book, which subsequently won the first prize in a literary competition. At the same age, he became familiar with film making. He shot films on 8mm film, acting in one and assisting in the making of another. Later, he took up photography. During his military service, Panahi served in the Iran–Iraq War (1980-88) and made a documentary about the war during this period.

After studying film directing at the College of Cinema and Television in Tehran, Panahi made several films for Iranian television and was the assistant director of Abbas Kiarostami's film Through the Olive Trees (1994). Since that time, he has directed several films and won numerous awards in international film festivals.

Panahi's first feature film came in 1995, entitled White Balloon. This film won a Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

About White Balloon, in an interview with Anthony Kaufman, Panahi said: "I was very conscious of not trying to play with people's emotions; we were not trying to create tear-jerking scenes. So it engages people's intellectual side. But this is with assistance from the emotional aspect and a combination of the two."
His second feature film, The Mirror, received the Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno Film Festival.

His most notable offering to date has been The Circle (2000), which criticized the treatment of women under Iran's Islamist regime. Jafar Panahi won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for The Circle, which was named FIPRESCI Film of the Year at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, and appeared on Top 10 lists of critics worldwide. Panahi also directed Crimson Gold in 2003, which brought him the Un Certain Regard Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

During that time Panahi was detained in the JFK airport, New York, while taking a connection from Hong Kong to Montevideo, after refusing to be photographed and fingerprinted by the immigration police. After being chained and waiting for several hours, he was finally sent back to Hong Kong.

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More: Special Interest, Political

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