Jafar Panahi: the green badge of courage

Film still for Jafar Panahi: the green badge of courage

Following the Iranian government’s imprisonment of leading filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, their colleague and compatriot Rafi Pitts has responded with an open letter to President Ahmadinejad. Gabe Klinger talks to Pitts about the case

Born in Iran in 1967, Rafi Pitts left for London in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War and has lived in Europe on a more or less permanent basis since 1981. He has made four features in Iran, most recently The Hunter (Shekarchi), which is released on DVD in the UK this month. Involved from the outset with the new Iranian cinema that developed in the 1990s, Pitts is closely associated with many of the country’s most prominent filmmakers. I phoned him at his home in Paris on Christmas Eve. Right away he knew what I was calling about.

On 20 December, the Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Crimson Gold) and Mohammad Rasoulof (The White Meadows, Iron Island) were both given six-year prison sentences and banned from making films for 20 years. Panahi had been embroiled in legal complications since July 2009, when he and several others were arrested at the cemetery in Tehran where the musician and elections protester Neda Agha-Soltan is buried. He was later released, only to be arrested again in March last year, along with Rasoulof and others. Most were released, but Panahi remained inside. At that time, Panahi expressed solidarity with other political dissidents who he felt were unfairly imprisoned. His sentence was extended.

On 18 May, during the Cannes Film Festival, it was announced that Panahi would begin a hunger strike in protest at the unfair treatment he and other prisoners had received. About a week after, he was released on bail. In November, Panahi and Rasoulof were in court for a hearing, and in December the official sentences were handed out, on the grounds that Panahi and Rasoulof had begun to prepare for the making of a “propaganda” film “against the Islamic republic”, and that their intention to do so was a “crime against the country’s national security”.

Pitts’s response has been to write this open letter to President Ahmadinejad, which he hopes will be published in the Iranian media.

In solidarity with Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, we suggest to all filmmakers and members of the film industry, regardless of your country or borders, religion or politics, to support our fellow filmmakers by not working for two hours between 15:00-17:00 (local time in Tehran) on the 11th of February 2011, the date of the 32nd anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

To Mr Ahmadinejad,

In 1979 there was a Revolution. In fact the commemoration, the 32nd year of our Iranian Revolution, is on the 11th of February 2011. The reason you need to be reminded of this is because I feel that you have forgotten the reasons why this all happened. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you need to explain yourself. Maybe you have your own definition of our Revolution. In which case I feel you should respond to the question: Why do you think we had a Revolution in 1979?

The time has also come to clarify your reasons for wanting filmmakers to be put away. Your reasons for wanting to kill a life, a career, in the name of our Revolution, or maybe I’m asking the wrong question: Is it all about your re-election?

A very close friend, Jafar Panahi, one of our most important filmmakers, for whom I have great respect as a person and admiration as a filmmaker, is being imprisoned by your government, by your law. He is sentenced to six years for wanting to make a film. A film he hasn’t even made. Six years in prison on an idea for a film. On top of it all, as though that wasn’t enough, he is sentenced to 20 years of not being allowed to make another film and 20 years of not being able to leave his homeland.

Another important young director, Mohammad Rasoulof, is being convicted with the same sentence. His crime: working with Jafar. They are both punished for caring about their fellow man. Punished for wanting to understand the events of June 2009. Punished for caring about the lives that were lost in the conflict due to the elections. Although, need you be reminded, all candidates had been given permission to present themselves by the regime. The choices were very clear and indeed legal. Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof made their decision alongside the majority of our film industry. It became the Green Movement. The right was given to us.

– Do you think there is anything wrong in wanting to understand why people died in our last elections?

– Do you really believe that our country is unaware of the violence the election results caused?

– Is it a crime for Panahi to want to make another film?

– Is it a crime for Rasoulof to question reality?

– Is it because filmmakers want to hold up a mirror on what has happened to society?

– Are you afraid of a point of view that might contradict yours? In which case, please answer the question: Why did we have a Revolution?

Rafi Pitts, Paris, 24 December 2010

Rafi Pitts

Rafi Pitts

What follows is the conversation I had with Pitts about the recent developments in the case of Panahi and Rasoulof, and about Iranian cinema in general, and the uncertainty that faces many Iranian filmmakers.

Gabe Klinger: Since the premiere of The Hunter in Berlin last year, you’ve been touring with the film non-stop. I guess most of us take the privilege of travelling to film festivals for granted.

Rafi Pitts: At every screening the first thing I say is, “I’m a very lucky person to be standing here in front of you.” Most Iranian filmmakers can’t do that. This makes me feel so uncomfortable. I’d been dedicating several screenings to Jafar before the sentencing even happened.

I remember a night in Rotterdam when we were spilling out of the Hotel Central in the middle of the night, and we ran into Panahi on the street. The two of you talked for a long time.

We started out together, you know. The first beautiful memory I have of Jafar is Cannes 1995, when he was presenting The White Balloon. We were living in the same room together, and I would translate for him. It was his first film and the first time he left the country. We were there for the entire festival, and the different phases we went through, the different ways he was seeing the world – it was beautiful. At that time Iranian cinema hadn’t become anything big yet. It was just a year after Kiarostami had shown Through the Olive Trees. It was a year when everything was still gentle in the Iranian film industry, and all of a sudden Iran was becoming a part of cinema! You could easily say Jafar kicked it off with his Camera d’Or for The White Balloon. Even though Kiarostami’s films were being shown, The White Balloon was the first major Iranian film to win a prize since [before] the revolution. Back then we were complaining about the state of things, but today it’s a hundred times worse.

You were talking to Panahi about the conditions in which films such as yours are shown in Iran. You mentioned that your film It’s Winter (Zemestan, 2006) was only shown on one screen in Tehran.

This is a modern form of censorship that Jafar was always against and I was always for. That was what we got for making films that were critical – I mean, this was during the reform period, before Ahmadinejad arrived. The authorities would say, “Oh, we allowed them to show their films.” I was always happy with one screen. Even if a small group of people saw the film, the fact that it was being shown in the country was enough for me. Jafar didn’t like it because it felt as if they were giving permission for us to make these films, but in reality they weren’t.

It’s very hard. How do you change things? How do you move things forward? Jafar is a raging bull – it’s the reason I like him so much. He just goes for it. He’s very courageous, whereas I tend to believe that we need to be diplomatic. But today it’s all gone beyond that. I mean, it’s no longer a question of talking about how to change things, because now the question is: how can we exist at all? Fifteen years ago we were younger, more enthusiastic, like something was going to happen. And here we are. It’s hell.

It’s as if what you were doing all along was creating a precedent for the current regime to react against.

Iran has become very young. The second wave of post-revolution Iranian cinema was just about to happen. You had a film like [Bahman Ghobadi’s] No One Knows About Persian Cats, with a different point of view on cinema, a different way of showing things. When I was doing The Hunter, everyone on the set felt excited about being aggressive and about saying things more directly than when we made It’s Winter. Everyone was more excited – you could feel it. I was on the set of Persian Cats and it was the same atmosphere. But at that time you maybe sensed that it was a small group of people who felt this way. Then the riots broke out and we realised that, no, it’s a huge country that feels this way. And then everything stopped.

In Iran, at the time, I would never have been able to make The Hunter and Ghobadi would never have been able to make Persian Cats had people in the film industry not thought the Green Party was going to take over. Everyone thought that Iran was going to open up. For six months there was a state of euphoria, people wearing green, dancing in the streets, getting ready…

Most of your films have been shown on one screen in Tehran. But The Hunter did not get shown at all in Iran.

I got the no-screen treatment.

So was that the official cut-off?

Yeah, but not only for me. It was everybody, unless they were state filmmakers.

If you look at Jafar’s films, there are no slogans. No one is saying do this or do that. It’s just trying to hold up a mirror. And so, when the regime is aggressive towards us, it makes us angry. It’s as if we were public enemies. But we’re not. We’re just trying to say, “Look what’s going on.” When Jafar gets angry – when any of us gets angry – it’s because they’re not looking at us for who we are.

Is there a precise issue we can pinpoint to explain why the Iranian government acts this way?

If you look into the history of Iran you can see where the paranoia comes from. You’re looking at a country that’s 70 per cent under the age of 30, so they weren’t born during the revolution. When the war with Iraq took place [1980-88], they were kids. Whereas the other 30 per cent – and I’m giving you broad strokes here – were there for the revolution and took part in the war. The people governing Iran took part in the eight-year war – a violent war, a million Iranians died. From this trauma comes the idea that anyone who wants to question the government must be against the government. Anyone who wants change must be against the martyrs who sacrificed themselves.

But the young people, who are living in dire straits, feel that change has to come, as any young person would feel in any part of the world. But the people governing want to move backwards. The regime thinks that we’re the enemy. But how can that be? Iranian filmmakers changed the world’s perception that Iran was a violent, dark place after the revolution.

Mohammad Rasoulof

Mohammad Rasoulof

Do you think the timing of Panahi’s sentence is coincidental, or is this a big strategy to make him a symbol?

Definitely he’s a symbol. The timing of the whole thing is chosen very carefully. The anniversary of the revolution is coming up, and this is very important. In Iran people are not allowed to demonstrate. So what can we do? Did we have a revolution to put filmmakers in prison? If that’s what the revolution has become, then Ahmadinejad should define it! They should say it in the open so the majority of us can hear it instead of pretending otherwise. They’re violating human rights, without a doubt, but they’re also violating the Iranian constitution. Jafar defended himself by citing the constitution and asking the judge about his right to express himself.

Let’s talk about your letter.

I tried to write it carefully enough for an Iranian journalist to be able to publish it without facing censorship, but chances of it being published are still very slim.

You’ve made a very civil proposal.

Iranian filmmakers are in the storm and others are in the sunshine. The idea is that everyone stops shooting for two hours to think about what’s happening. People need to realise that we’re all in the same boat in fighting for freedom to express ourselves. Cinema doesn’t have borders. Jafar and Mohammad going behind bars is like all of us going behind bars.

The date I’ve proposed is the anniversary of the revolution, which also happens to be during the Tehran and Berlin film festivals. So it’s a very active moment for the film community.

People are wondering, perhaps naively, why Panahi and Rasoulof – with their international connections and fame – hadn’t left the country earlier.

I remember when Jafar and I did our first Cannes. By the end of the week he wanted to go home. Even though it was Cannes, he still wanted to go back to Tehran. For Jafar that’s where he’s always wanted to make films. Leaving his country would also mean no longer making films. What he has to say is over there, and he’ll pay any price to say it. I think Jafar will never leave. Exile is easier for some of us, for others not. For me it’s easier because at least I speak several languages.

What would happen to you if you went to Iran today?

I have no idea. This is the problem. If someone said to me that I’d get a year in prison and that I could go on with my life afterwards, I would go back immediately. But I don’t know what the consequences would be now. I’ve made a film. Jafar and Mohammad haven’t even made a film [so recently], and they got six years. No one expected that. So what’s next? How much further will they go? If only the law was clear. Censorship has always existed, but we’ve worked within those boundaries, and sometimes even beyond those boundaries. When you break a rule, the consequence is simple: the film is not allowed to be shown. Now, out of the blue, six years!

There’s an appeals process. Do you think that will change anything?

Let’s hope. The Iranian way of doing things is to live by the day. We never foresee the future. That’s what keeps us going.

What can Iranians as well as the international community do?

When something like this happens there is no solidarity among Iranian filmmakers. What the regime has done is to intimidate the film industry. But the only way to combat it is to stick together. They can’t put the entire film industry in jail. But outside the country we need to stick together too. I’ve got nothing against petitions, but now it’s going to be about direct action. That’s why if there’s a two-hour halt in cinema production worldwide, it becomes an issue that everyone is concerned with. Everyone is sacrificing something. I think they will feel the echo of that in Iran.

See also

It’s Winter reviewed by Jonathan Romney (January 2007)

Offside reviewed by Julian Graffy (June 2006)

A Silence Between Two Thoughts reviewed by John Wrathall (July 2004)

Iranian House Style: Hannah McGill on the Makmalbafs (April 2004)

Crimson Gold reviewed by Julian Graffy (November 2003)

The Circle reviewed by Julian Graffy (October 2001)

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012