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It was a bad week for filmmakers’ freedom of expression, or for the tender sensibilities of Islamic fundamentalists, depending on your point of view. The television airing of a “blasphemous” film in Tunisia sent hundreds of offended Tunisians on a rampage. An Iranian actress was sentenced to jail and ninety lashes for appearing in a film deemed critical of the Iranian regime. And Bollywood filmmakers were ordered to either change the name of a film that “hurt Muslim feelings” or face thousands of angry demonstrators across Mumbai.
“Three hundred people attacked our offices and tried to set fire to them,” said Nebil Karoui, chairman of Tunisian television station Nessma, after the station received death threats in the wake of Friday night’s broadcast of the film Persepolis. “There were messages posted on Facebook calling for Nessma to be torched and our journalists to be killed.”
Persepolis, writer/director Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her graphic novels about growing up during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, is critical of the fundamentalist regime and contains a scene showing a character representing Allah, which is of course blasphemous in Islam. The film won the jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Worshippers poured out of al-Fatah mosque in downtown Tunis in the afternoon and began protesting after the imam preached against Persepolis, calling it a “serious attack on the religious beliefs of Muslims.” Tunisian police had to resort to tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters; fifty demonstrators who tried to attack the station were arrested.
In the wake of this and other protests in the cities of Sousse, Monastir, Sidi Bouzid and Beja, the government called not for calm and restraint, but for “respect for sacred things” – essentially faulting the station for having the temerity to broadcast Persepolis despite the pain it could cause to hair-trigger Muslim sentiments.
Despite apologizing for airing the movie, station owner Karoui’s home was attacked at night by around a hundred people hurling firebombs. He wasn’t home at the time, but his wife and children were forced to flee out the back, and a housemaid was attacked and later hospitalized.
So much for the flowering of democracy and freedom after Tunisia’s Arab Spring. In Tehran, where the 2009 Green Revolution might have led to true democracy and freedom if the Obama administration had actively facilitated it, actress Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced last week to a year in prison and ninety lashes for her role in My Tehran for Sale, a film ironically about a theater actress whose work is banned by the authorities, and who is then forced to “go underground” to secretly express her art. Ultimately, she plots her escape from Iran. The film shows subversive footage of Iranian “rave”-style parties, and in some scenes Vafamehr, who is married to an Iranian film director, is shown without a hijab and with a shaved head.
(See the trailer for My Tehran for Sale here.)
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