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Culture

Berlin film world shows solidarity with imprisoned Iranian director

Jafar Panahi doesn't view himself as a political filmmaker, but his work is rife with messages for a society struggling with authoritarianism. The Berlin International Film Festival is honoring the director this year.

Director Jafar Panahi

The award-winning filmmaker is unable to attend this year's festival

His seat in the jury and at the screenings remains empty at the Berlin International Film Festival: Jafar Panahi was invited to help award this year's Golden and Silver Bear statues, but the Iranian filmmaker was sentenced to six years in prison on December 18, 2010. He was also banned ffrom making more movies for 20 years.

Along with Panahi, some of his filmmaking crew were sentenced to prison, as well as another famous Iranian director, Mohammad Rasoulof. The sentence has solidified Panahi's name as a symbol of resistance to the repressive regime in Tehran.

The director's invitation to jury the Berlin International Film Festival shows that the festival sees itself as a political force, and his absence has come into focus at many of this year's events in the German capital. On opening night, the director was on the phone to hear a five minute standing ovation in his honor.

"We showed Jafar Panahi and his friends and all other filmmakers in the world who are living under repression that they are not forgotten," said festival director Dieter Kosslick. "And this is the most important sign we can give at this festival."

2011 jury chair Isabella Rossellini

Jury Chair Isabella Rossellini read a letter from Panahi on opening night

Filmmakers speaking out

The director's Iranian colleague Rafi Pitts issued a call to all filmmakers worldwide to stop their work for two hours on February 11 as a sign of support for censored directors. On February 17, the festival also hosted a roundtable discussion on censorship with Iranian actors and directors, most of whom now live in exile.

"Censorship is something that can take very different forms," said Matthijs Wouter Knoll, program director of the series that included the panel on censorship.

"It's very important that young filmmakers are aware of the fact that with the medium they are using to reach people they have a very strong weapon in their hands to say something - to speak out about the things they think are important," Knoll addeed.

Panahi has said he doesn't view himself as a political filmmaker, but many of his works can nonetheless be seen as statements on the sociopolitical situation in his homeland. Iranian filmmakers have worked with symbols and metaphors for years to send messages of protest against the authoritarian regime.

A still from Jafar Panahi's film Offside

Panahi's "Offside" won a Silver Bear for 2006

Veiled messages

That's true of Panahi's own works like "White Balloon" (1995), "The Circle" (2000) and his soccer film "Offside." His poetic and gently narrated dramas always come with a message, but they were scarcely to be seen in theaters in Iran. Instead, they reached large audiences in the country by way of DVD.

His growing fame at home may explain why the Iranian regime took such drastic measures against the director. Even before his most recent sentence, Panahi was already prey to surveillance and imprisonment, and material from the unfinished film he was most recently working on has been confiscated.

Following the director's sentence on December 18, 2010, members of the film industry from across the world have advocated for his release, so far without success.

Panahi won the Silver Bear in 2006 for "Offside," a film raising the question of why women aren't allowed to watch soccer matches in Iran. His other works have also won prizes at major international festivals. To date, he has directed five films.

Author: Jochen Kürten / gsw
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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