This past December the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail for “making propaganda against the state,” and to a twenty-year ban on any film work, interviews with foreign media, or leaving Iran. Panahi had been in much trouble with the regime lately, having allied himself at home and abroad with the Green Movement and having dared to wear symbolic green at last year’s Montreal festival. He had been arrested in July of 2009 at a graveside ceremony for Neda Agha-Soltan, then again in March of this year, taken to the infamous Evin Prison, where he reported mistreatment and went on a hunger strike. Released last May, he was tried in November and sentenced December 20. Panahi’s situation has been extensively covered this year by Big Hollywood’s John T. Simpson.
Panahi first came to attention in the West with “The White Balloon” in 1995, which won Camera d’Or at Cannes, then “The Mirror” in 1997, which received the Golden Leopard at Locarno. But it is “The Circle” of 2000, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, that marks Panahi’s arrival among the first ranks of artists of moral stature.
“The Circle” is a ronde of multiple women passing near a mobile camera and through Tehran’s labyrinthine streets. But this isn’t the Viennese confection of Ophuls or the wanderings of Altman. Rather, in Panahi’s neo-realist style it more closely resembles documentary battle footage, deepened by long takes and much ambient sound with little music. Starting with a distraught woman giving birth to a baby girl, which means the husband’s family will shortly abandon them both, we elide to two women fleeing prison -- one under threat by her male family to get an abortion, the other trying to raise money to get her friend back to her home village, a dubious enterprise. These two slip past another woman trying to abandon her young daughter so that the girl might live beyond prostitution, but they are nonetheless accused and taken into police custody, jailed with real prostitutes, who wear the same look of cornered animal dread as all the prior women in the film. Seemingly simple, “The Circle” is a masterpiece in the anatomy of Iran’s Islamist culture and its hatred of women.
Over the last decades much praise has been heaped on the New Iranian Cinema, suggesting something like a New Czech Cinema, mainly by the multiculturalist bien-pensants of European film festivals, with Abbas Kiarostami getting the lion’s share of praise, fitting for a filmmaker whose ambiguously minimalist style covers an alluring but empty formalism.
It is Panahi who holds the frightening truth up against real, lethal power. For all their posturing, the Western independent, avant-garde, or underground filmmakers have mostly been panderers to adolescent alienation and nihilism, in return for obscene fame and fortune. There is a real difference between a gift bag from the Oscars and a bullet behind the ear.
It is Jafar Panahi that walks the road of Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Vaclav Havel, Heberto Padilla, and Tian Zhuangzhuang.
The ever brilliant Caroline Glick has recently reminded us that “War is a dirty business. Information war is a dirty form of war. And if we don’t want to lose, we better start fighting.” Glick explains that when in May 2001 two boys, Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran were bludgeoned and butchered near Gush Etzion, local Palestinian television had featured doctored Israeli atrocity footage around the clock for weeks. Such is the actual nature of information warfare.
Glick warns us that in the runup to the January 15 indictments against Hizbullah operatives for the murder of Rafik Hariri, Hizbullah has been engaged in a flurry of deals and intimidations to shape this new page of information war to their ends.
Even the New Year’s Day bombing of the Christian church in Cairo was preceded by an al-Qaeda manual on “destroying the cross,” complete with bomb building videos. Salafi hardliners had been holding anti-Christian demonstrations, passing out fliers calling for violence against Christians, for weeks.
Internationally, the current US administration, diplomatic service, academy, and mainstream media reflexively regard communication as neutral, disembodied, even empty. This is what they have been trained to think and paid to do all their lives. Against domestic adversaries, they are fully into the dirty information war, as recent events reveal.
Right now we must move to support Panahi with concrete actions. There is no reason the figures and agents of radical Islam should be allowed free and easy access to our portals of information. There is certainly no reason to allow these monsters to prance around luxury NY hotels, the UN, or Columbia.
If we cannot act to protect Jafar Panahi, who can we protect?
Edward Azlant is a retired film academic (PhD-UW Madison), screenwriter (WGA), record producer (Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater), and music photographer (The Immortal Otis Redding). He has written for FrontPage, Commentary, Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, and Powerline. Azlant lives in northern California.