The no-screen treatment

Jafar Panahi in black coat (IFFR 2008)

On December 20th Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Muhammad Rasoulof were sentenced to six years in jail and received a twenty year ban on filmmaking in Iran. American film critic Gabe Klinger discussed the political situation and the state of affairs in Iranian cinema with Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts. ‘I’m a very lucky person to be standing here in front of you. Most Iranian filmmakers can’t do that.’

Rafi Pitts (b. Mashad, Iran, 1967) grew up in Tehran. He 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, and his season five (1997) was the first Franco-Iranian coproduction since the Revolution. Pitts has accompanied the rise of the new Iranian cinema since the beginning and is closely associated with many of the country’s most prominent film artists and industry members.

I phoned Pitts in his home in Paris on Christmas Eve. Right away he knew what I was calling about. “Have you heard what’s happening to my fellow filmmakers?”

On December 20th, 2010, the filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Muhammad Rasoulof were given a six-year prison sentence and banished from the film industry for twenty years. Panahi had been in and out of legal complications since July 2009 when he and several others were arrested at a cemetery in Tehran where the musician and elections protester Neda Agha-Soltan is buried. He was later released and then arrested again in March of this year along with Mohammad Rasoulof and others. Most were released but Panahi remained inside. At this time, Panahi expressed solidarity with other political dissidents who he felt were unfairly imprisoned. His sentence was extended. On May 18th, during the Cannes Film Festival, it was announced that Panahi would begin a hunger strike in protest to 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 sentence of six years was given 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.”

“I’m writing a letter to Ahmadinejad”, Pitts tells me.

I’ve included his letter, which he hopes will be published in the Iranian media, below.

What follows the letter is a conversation we had about the recent developments with Panahi and Rasoulof, as well as a general dialogue about Iranian cinema, its past and present, and the uncertainty that awaits many Iranian filmmakers.

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 twenty years of not being allowed to make another film and twenty 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, 24th of December 2010, Paris

It’s hard to keep track of you. You’ve been touring the hunter non-stop to several different countries since its premiere in Berlin. I guess most of us take the privilege of traveling to film festivals for granted. 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’ve 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 that night… 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 the revolution.
Back then we were complaining about the state of things but today it’s a hundred times worse.

I remember you were talking to Panahi about the conditions in which films such as yours are shown in Iran. You mentioned it’s winter was only being projected 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… there we were, 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 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 then we realized that, no, it’s a huge country that feels this way.
And then everything stopped.
In Iran, at the time, I would have never been able to make the hunter and Ghobadi would have never been able to make persian cats had people in the film industry not thought that the Green Party was going to take over. Everyone thought that Iran was going to open. 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. And with the hunter, nothing. I got the no-screen treatment.

So that was 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. People are in trouble.”
When Jafar gets angry — when any of us get angry — it’s because they’re not looking at us for who we are.

Can you give us some more historical context to this? Is there a precise issue that we can signal toward to explain why the government acts this way? If you look down into the history of Iran you can see where the paranoia comes from. You’re looking at a country that’s 70 percent under the age of thirty. So they weren’t born during the revolution. When the war with Iraq took place they were kids. Whereas the other 30 percent — 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. It was a violent war, a million Iranian 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 real 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.

Do you think the timing on Panahi’s sentence is coincidental? Or is this a big public relations 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. Well, 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.
But why can’t it be published? This situation is obscene.

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 realize 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 on 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.

I’d like to touch on the question of exile. People are wondering, perhaps naively, why Panahi and Rasoulof haven’t left the country before with their international connections and fame. 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. I have no idea. This is the problem. I don’t know what the consequences would be now. I’ve made a film. Jafar and Mohammad haven’t even made a film 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. But when you break a rule, the consequence is simple: the film is not allowed to be shown. This has happened over and over. 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. But they way they’re dealing with this right now doesn’t feel that way…

What can Iranians as well as the international community do? When something like this happens, I feel there is no solidarity among Iranian filmmakers. What the regime has done is to intimidate the film industry, instill fear. But the only way to combat is to stick together. They can’t put the entire film industry in jail.
But outside of 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.

Gabe Klinger

Gabe Klinger is a writer, teacher and curator based in Chicago.

On February 11th filmmakers will launch a two hour global protest against the sentence of Panahi and Rasoulof. The International Film Festival Rotterdam has also announced support action. Details are as of yet unknown. Check for updates.