Photo Gallery: Jafar Panahi's Courageous Film Career

Foto: Str/ dpa

Kafka in Tehran Iranian Filmmaker Is Victim of Paranoid Regime

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.

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.

In Trouble with the Authorities

The conflict between the director and the regime escalated when Panahi openly sympathized with Mir Hossein Mousavi, the most promising challenger to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential election. On June 15, 2009, Panahi joined hundreds of thousands of other Iranians on a march through Tehran to protest against the allegedly manipulated poll and the self-appointed winner, Ahmadinejad.

The director was arrested for the first time, together with his daughter Solmaz, when the two attended a memorial service for Neda Agha-Soltan on July 30. The student, who was shot during a demonstration, became an icon of the resistance movement after her death. This time Panahi and his daughter were released within a day.

At the end of August 2009, the director traveled to Montreal, a guest of the city's film festival, to serve as the president of the jury. Panahi wore a green scarf on the red carpet, green being the color of the Iranian protest movement. It was an act of provocation.

At the beginning of 2010, Panahi and a friend, the director and producer Mohammad Rasoulof, began shooting a new film. Without a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, they filmed secretly in Panahi's apartment, located in an upscale neighborhood in northern Tehran. "But in Iran," says Bakhtiari, "almost nothing remains secret."

Hunger Strike

On March 1, with a third of the film already shot, police raided the apartment. They arrested 17 people, including Panahi, his wife and daughter, Rasoulof and other members of the crew. They also confiscated the film material and Panahi's DVD collection and took along files and computers. Panahi was taken to Tehran's Evin Prison, a final destination for many political prisoners that is notorious for torture.

In late May, after Panahi had gone on a 10-day hunger strike and many protest campaigns were held worldwide, he was released on bail after putting up the equivalent of more than €160,000 ($218,000). Panahi was forced to mortgage his apartment to raise the bail money. Despite being under police surveillance, he managed to give a few interviews by telephone in the ensuing months. He constantly swapped out the SIM card in his mobile phone.

There are more than 750 pages in the dossier the prosecutors prepared against him. It contains all of the interviews the director has given in the last five years. Although Panahi expressed only muted criticism of the regime, even in interviews with the European media, the prosecution is using the interviews as evidence of alleged "conspiracy and propaganda" against the government.

On Dec. 18, 2010, Branch No. 26 of the Revolutionary Courts in Tehran sentenced Panahi to six years in prison and barred him from working in his profession for 20 years. His friend Rasoulof received the same sentence. Panahi's lawyer, Farideh Gheirat, filed an appeal against the ruling. It is the harshest sentence imposed on a prominent filmmaker in Iran since 1979. The director is permitted to move about freely in Iran until the ruling is final.

Drastic Warning

In effect, the court's decision is not just directed against Panahi, but against all independent Iranian artists. It serves as a drastic warning and a demand to exercise self-censorship and refrain from criticizing the regime. Many artists supported Mousavi in 2009. Even the government censorship office was apparently so firmly convinced that the relatively liberal candidate would win the election that it approved a few film projects that would normally be considered politically suspect, like Rafi Pitts' revenge drama "The Hunter."

The film portrays a security guard in Tehran (played by Pitts himself), whose wife and daughter have been killed in a demonstration. Although he doesn't know who was responsible for their deaths, he takes his gun and hunts down police officers.

With the authorities' permission, Pitts shot a scene, in the middle of the election campaign, in which his protagonist shoots two police officers driving in a patrol car on a highway. "The censor merely demanded that we portray him as a crazy person," says Pitts. The protagonist was not to be made to look like a cold-blooded killer.

The Risks of Foreign Pressure

Pitts, 44, is sitting in his small Paris apartment in the 14th arrondissement, with a poster for John Cassavetes' film "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" on the wall. "This is my hiding place," says Pitts, smiling somewhat uncomfortably. He left Iran in 1979, studied in London, worked as an assistant director in Paris, but always returned to Iran to shoot his own films.

It is cold in the apartment. Pitts has opened the windows to get the smell of cigarette smoke out of the rooms. His Iranian friends in Paris were there on the previous evening, when they spent hours debating how they could help Panahi and Rasoulof. Pitts' assistant director had also been arrested together with Panahi. It could just as easily have been Pitts himself.

Pitts is organizing a solidarity campaign for Panahi and Rasoulof. He wants people working in the film industry around the world to stop working for two hours on Feb. 11, while Panahi's "Offside" is being shown at the Berlinale. "It isn't supposed to appear full of pathos," he says. "Just a silent protest." One has to be careful when campaigning from abroad, he adds, because too much foreign pressure could make the regime even more stubborn. Several political prisoners have been executed in Iran in recent days.

The defense strategy for Panahi consists of sharply denying the accusation that he is pursuing a political agenda with his films. The prosecutors had charged that he intended to address the unrest related to the green movement in his new film.

But his new film isn't even finished yet, Panahi told the court. "Sometimes I have the impression that it's a crime just to think about making a film," he said. "In fact, someone who merely dreams about a film appears to be committing a minor offense or a crime punishable with a prison sentence."

An artist who is being harassed because of an idea -- it sounds like a nightmarish scene penned by the likes of Franz Kafka or George Orwell, and it highlights the paranoia of a regime that knows, especially after the protests in summer 2009, how little popular support it has.

'The Film Is Not Political'

"The film is not political" says Panahi's friend Bakhtiari in Paris. In a telephone call shortly before the meeting with SPIEGEL, Panahi asked Bakhtiari to stress that he had been filming a purely personal story about "a television moderator who comes home to find her son has been wounded." Bakhtiari doesn't say why the boy is injured.

To avoid jeopardizing the prospects for his appeal, Panahi insists that he was merely shooting a small, harmless home movie with family and friends. "There is no law that forbids a filmmaker from making a film in his own home," Bakhtiari says, quoting Panahi. But Panahi, more than anyone else, knows that what one does at home in Iran is by no means off-limits.

In his film "Crimson Gold," the director depicts Tehran police officers lurking outside an apartment building where a party is being held. The shadows of people dancing are recognizable through the curtain of an apartment on the third floor. Dancing is forbidden in Iran. In Panahi's film, the police immediately arrest and take away everyone who leaves the building.

There is almost no music in the five feature films Panahi has directed to date. Police sirens, on the other hand, are constantly heard. The artfully arranged sound landscapes are acoustic portraits of a police state. Again and again in his films, the director has police officers and soldiers appear unexpectedly. They don't always come across as threatening, but often appear clumsy and out of their depth, as if the uniforms they are wearing were a few sizes too big for them.

Panorama of Society

In "Offside," the police arrest six young women and girls who, dressed as men, have snuck into the football stadium in Tehran, where the Iranian national team is playing a World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. The only problem is that woman in Iran are not permitted to watch men playing football. The police officers lock up the women behind barricades on the stadium grounds. They are unable to see the game from there, but they can hear the cheering male crowds. Suddenly the women start imitating a football match. Their role model is the Iranian star player Ali Karimi, who now plays for the German club Schalke 04. The police officers, not knowing what to do, stand on the other side of the fence, watching the women, unsure which of the two games they should pay more attention to. As is often the case in Panahi's films, the women take action while the men hesitate.

The ability to set up a panorama of society within just a few square meters of space is one of the things the Tehran regime fears about Panahi. This probably explains why those in power sent their henchmen to the director's apartment to arrest him and his team.

Every film project in Iran must pass through three censorship stages. First the script has to be approved, which can involve months of wrangling over dialogue and camera settings. Every bit of hair poking out of a headscarf can become a political issue in Iran. Once a film is finished, the producer and director must obtain permission to show it at a festival. In the end, the censors also decide whether it can be shown in Iranian movie theaters.

"When you shoot a film in Iran, you waste 80 percent of your energy getting all the permits. You're constantly asking yourself: Am I allowed to do this, or can I do that?" Panahi said in a 2005 interview.

Outwitting the Censors

He repeatedly managed to outwit the authorities over a period of years. In the case of "Offside," he presented the censors with a different version of the script than the one he intended to film. He was given the green light and assembled two film crews. One crew, intended to distract the censors, filmed the official version, while the other crew secretly filmed Panahi's version.

Of course, "Offside" was not given the approval to be shown in Iranian theaters, but the government-run Film Museum of Iran had no trouble adding the Silver Bear Panahi won at the Berlin International Film Festival to its collection. "The room where the museum exhibits my awards is bigger than my prison cell," Panahi said in court last November.

Panahi is both persecuted and officially celebrated. "In Iran," says Bakhtiari, "one person never makes a decision." Panahi's ally Rasoulof, he adds, was given a six-year prison sentence and, almost simultaneously, received approval from the Culture Ministry to shoot a new film. Panahi and Rasoulof are the tragic heroes of a Kafkaesque system.

When Ahmadinejad's mentor Esfandiar Rahim Mashai told Iran's ISNA news agency in mid-January that the sentence against Panahi was too harsh, the Tehran daily newspaper Kayhan, a mouthpiece for the Islamists, asked whether Mashai might want to issue a check or an award to a rabble-rouser like Panahi. Panahi, the agent provocateur who always has a slight smile on his face, has put the regime in a tight spot.

In Exile

Panahi is an idol to his fellow Iranians. At a university event in Tehran two weeks ago, students held up his photo, chanted his name and shouted down a band that was intended to drown out their protests. What the people in power certainly do not need is to turn Panahi into a martyr. They would probably prefer to see him leave the country, like so many other film artists before him. Panahi was summoned to the Iranian Culture Ministry five times in the last few years, and each time he was advised to leave the country. He rejected the suggestion each time.

By contrast, some of the most successful Iranian artists and filmmakers, like Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Kandahar"), Shirin Neshat ("Women Without Men") and Marjane Satrapi ("Persepolis"), left Iran many years ago. Although they now live in Paris or New York, their native country is always at the center of their films. "You can drive an Iranian out of his country, but you can't drive the country out of an Iranian," says Neshat.

"The Green Wave," the most forceful documentary to date about the summer 2009 protests, is also the work of an exile, the German-Iranian Ali Samadi Ahadi. The last time he was in Iran was in April 2009, but now it's become too dangerous for him to go there.

'I Experienced the Dark Side of My Country'

By now even formerly apolitical stars like the 27-year-old actress Golshifteh Farahani are fleeing abroad. She had already been in about 20 Iranian films when director Ridley Scott offered her a part with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in the Hollywood thriller "Body of Lies."

At the New York premier in October 2008, Farahani appeared on the red carpet without a headscarf, triggering an uproar in her native Iran. "I wasn't really clear about the consequences," she says today. "But at the time I just thought it was stupid to wear a headscarf. After all, the other women at the premiere weren't wearing one either."

When she returned to Iran, Farahani was interrogated and her passport was taken away. The next Hollywood production, for which she had already signed a contract (titled, ironically, "Prince of Persia"), was filmed without her. "It was the worst time of my life. I experienced the dark side of my country for the first time. At the time, Jafar Panahi was the only person who supported me publicly," says Farahani.

She wasn't permitted to leave the country again until February 2009, when she attended the Berlinale. Her film "About Elly," which is only now playing in German theaters, was shown in the competition in Berlin. Farahani lives in Paris today.

Kafka in Tehran

Panahi, on the other hand, isn't letting the authorities drive him out, even though many friends have often urged him to leave. He wants to stay in Iran and continue making films, even though the censors have repeatedly rejected his projects since 2006, including the film adaptation of "A Thousand Splendid Suns," the second novel of bestselling author Khaled Hosseini ("The Kite Runner"). "I can't stop working. I only live when I make films," says Panahi.

What will the regime do with its most rebellious director? Will it truly put away Panahi in prison for years, despite the protests at home and abroad? Or can the Tehran judges reverse their ruling?

"Islamic law offers many possibilities," says his friend Bakhtiari, smiling for a moment. There is a difference, he explains, between "tasiri," or serving a sentence, and "talighi," or a suspended sentence. The Tehran judges could decide to convert the sentence from one to the other.

In that case, Panahi would be sentenced and would still be released -- a Kafka in Tehran -- his head full of ideas that are considered crimes.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.