At the Cannes Film festival in March 2009, one of the four jury seats had been left empty as a mark of respect for an absent man. On the placard, the name read ‘Jafar Panahi’. Amidst political drama and intense power struggle, there was a silent tension in the film industry. The Iranian government’s quiet and cruel judgement against Panahi went unheard in the hustle-bustle of the everyday life. But those (in minority) who heard him, cried hoarse and demanded his release.
Even though he is a man known to few in the world, Jafar Panahi is one of the most influential film-makers of the world. His quick rise to fame made the world cinema fraternity stand up and look at him with admiration. He is a simple man who gave birth to extremely fresh ideas and portrayed them through powerful cinema. He even started the Iranian New Wave Movement almost single-handedly. However, just when he was at the peak of his career, his government slapped him with a 20-year ban on script writing and film-making, and gave him six years of imprisonment. I believe that to condemning a man who has brought artistic fame and glory to his country is simply outrageous.
Panahi’s absence at Cannes haunts the world of cinema even today. To add the man’s greatness, he wrote a book at the age of 10 which even won him a prize at a literary competition. It was at this age that he started dabbling with the art of film-making. After studying at the Iran Broadcasting College, he moved on to assisting his mentor Abbas Kiarostami in directing his first film, Through the Olive Trees (1994). The next year saw Panahi coming out with his first feature film, White Balloon. This film went on to win the Camera d’Or at Cannes. This movie is about a girl who loses money when she’s on her way to the market without her mother for the first time. Panahi beautifully captures the mischievous nature of the girl and the sudden fear in her when she loses the money.
Since then, Panahi has directed The Mirror, The Circle, Ardekoul, Crimson Gold and Offside. Panahi has spoken firmly in a country where silence is the only known language. He has made the artistic boundaries of Iran wider and by boldly making controversial films; he has enraged the men in control of the household. Standing out in the crowd where cinema is otherwise ruled by veteran directors, he comes with a fresh yet powerful change. His most successful film, The Circle (2000), tells the tale of Iranian women and their treatment in the hostile Islamist regime. The movie was a hard punch to the public and had a neo-realistic approach. Similarly, Offside, was about a group of girls who disguise themselves as boys to watch a football match. His ability to tell stories by breaking convention and various taboos and yet, sticking to humanitarian themes makes him what I call a mature artist.
On 30 July 2009, he was arrested outside a cemetery. Though he was later released, his passport was revoked and he wasn’t allowed to travel outside the country. On 1 March 2010, he was arrested yet again along with his wife, daughter and 15 of his other friends, and taken to the Evin Prison. Most of the others were released in 48 hours, but Panahi still remains there in ward 209.
World-renowned people and organizations like Abbas Kiarostami, Robert de Niro, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Toronto Film Critics Association, Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Amnesty International have appealed for his release. On March 18 March 2010, he was allowed to meet visitors.
Iran’s Minister of Culture said that Panahi and his family were arrested because he was making a film against the regime. However, his lawyer and wife denied these statements. Despite the complete domination of the government and the legal restrictions, Jafar Panahi went on to make a documentary feature named This Is Not A Film on his own life, which was screened at Cannes in 2011. The movie was smuggled out of Iran in a cake without the government’s notice.
Jafar Panahi is an artist who is spearheading his country’s cinema right now. To cruelly force a man into exile for six years and condemning his creative soul to silence for 20 years is nothing but a torturous murder to his art and talent.