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Kafka in Tehran: Iranian Filmmaker Is Victim of Paranoid Regime

By Lars-Olav Beier and

Director Jafar Panahi is facing six years in prison in his native Iran, where the regime feels threatened by his films such as 2006's "Offside." The organizers of the Berlin International Film Festival, which begins Thursday, have expressed their support for Panahi by including him in the jury, even though he will not be able to attend.

Photo Gallery: Jafar Panahi's Courageous Film Career Photos
DPA

Perhaps, says Abbas Bakhtiari, he will make a movie one day. Something autobiographical about his escape from Iran in the early 1980s -- an escape that became unavoidable after soldiers had shot a friend and his pregnant wife had a miscarriage after being abused with the butts of rifles. Bakhtiari and his wife escaped in a small boat that took them across the Strait of Hormuz to Dubai. He has been living in exile in Paris since 1983.

Bakhtiari, 53, a slim man in a collarless black suit, is a professional actor, musician and composer. Today he runs a French-Iranian cultural center on the Saint-Martin canal in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. A few scenes of the film "Amélie" were shot outside the cultural center.

But at the moment Bakhtiari's main occupation is being the voice of his friend Jafar Panahi, the prize-winning Iranian director. Panahi cannot speak for himself, because he has been barred from talking to foreigners and journalists. If he did, it would only make his situation worse.

Shortly before Christmas, a court in Tehran sentenced Panahi to six years in prison and barred him from working in his profession for 20 years, for allegedly attempting to commit "crimes against the national security and engaging in propagandist activities against the system of the Iranian Revolution." In fact, the director had merely tried to make a film.

Panahi has become a symbol for the freedom of artistic expression and how it is being threatened by totalitarian regimes, censorship and violence. "They want to make an example of Jafar," says Bakhtiari. He is coordinating an international campaign and enlisting the support of celebrities to ensure that the world does not forget his friend, especially now that international attention is focused on Egypt. If Iran is in the global spotlight at all, it is only in connection with the country's alleged nuclear ambitions.

'Art Is Stronger than Politics'

Bakhtiari receives visitors in his cultural center, where there are Persian books and CDs on the shelves. A young woman in a long green coat serves tea, and Bakhtiari offers us dates and almonds. He smokes one cigarette after another. His lighter is decorated with a palm frond, the logo of the Cannes Film Festival.

"Art is stronger than politics," says Bakhtiari. There are petitions supporting Panahi on the Internet, signed by some of his famous fellow directors, like Martin Scorsese and Sean Penn. The 61st Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, which begins on Thursday, is also taking a stand for the persecuted director.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick appointed Panahi to the jury for the festival competition as "a sign of support for his struggle for freedom," as he wrote in a letter to the Iranian ambassador. Tehran reacted coolly, offering to send a director acceptable to the regime to serve on the jury instead. Kosslick rejected the offer, saying: "We don't want somebody from the substitutes' bench."

In fact, Panahi's presence will be strongly felt at this year's Berlinale, where all of his works will be shown during the course of the festival. On Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, the day the forces supported by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power in 1979, the festival will screen "Offside," probably Panahi's most popular film.

Taking on Taboos

Jafar Panahi, 50, is one of the most renowned contemporary Iranian directors. He won awards at Europe's major film festivals -- Cannes, Locarno, Venice and Berlin -- for his films "The White Balloon" (1995), "The Mirror" (1997), "The Circle" (2000), "Crimson Gold" (2003) and "Offside" (2006). By contrast, Iran's conservative mullahs see the director, who comes from the city of Meyaneh in northwestern Iran and who fought in the 1980-1988 war against Iraq before becoming a filmmaker, as a public enemy. This is not surprising, given that his films depict all the things that are officially taboo in his country: alcohol consumption, prostitution and the oppression of women. Panahi's films are banned in Iran.

Iran's religious extremists already consider film to be the work of the devil. In August 1978, with the revolution against the shah already brewing, arsonists set fire to a packed movie theater in the city of Abadan. More than 400 people died. Ayatollah Khomeini, who went on to become Iran's supreme leader, blamed the shah's agents for the attack. He also used the opportunity to condemn cinemas as "centers of immorality" that were "directed against the welfare of our country." It is now considered a proven fact that followers of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's current religious leader, were behind the attack.

Today there are only 90 movie theaters in Tehran, a city of 13 million, out of a total of about 270 in the entire country. Most Iranians prefer to watch films on DVD at home, partly because unmarried men and women are officially barred from going to the movies together.

Even US blockbusters like "Avatar" are legally available on DVD in Iran, though they are often drastically shortened. In addition, foreign films are reworked on computers. To appease the country's moral police, digital retouching techniques are used to lengthen skirts and eliminate cleavage. Almost any film is available, uncensored, on the black market in Tehran, from Hollywood productions to Iranian films that were not approved to be shown in theaters, including Panahi's films.

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