The highpoint so far at the Montreal World Film Festival, where I am serving as a member of the FIPRESCI jury, happened before the first film was shown. Last Thursday during the opening night festivities, Jafar Panahi, the renowned Iranian director and president of the Jury (not the one I'm on, but the "main" jury, the one that gets free bottles of water at the screenings) was walking down the red carpet and came upon a group of demonstrators carrying green balloons and wearing face paint. They were Iranians protesting that country's recent election and ongoing repression of dissent. He greeted them and said he wished for "freedom and democracy" for Iran. Inside the theater, after he and the other six jury members were introduced, they walked onto the stage wearing long green scarves. Panahi had brought them from Tehran for that purpose. Green, he explained to me later in an interview, was a color representing hope, life and renewal. It wasn't the symbol of any political party, but it was symbolic of a system in which all political parties, even those in opposition to the party in power, are allowed to exist and participate in the democratic process.
A mere gesture, perhaps. In Iran, though, such gestures can get people imprisoned, tortured, sometimes killed. On July 30, at the memorial service for one such victim - a young woman named Neda who had been shot to death during a peaceful demonstration - Panahi himself was arrested along with his wife and daughter. He was released the same day, the authorities claiming that it had all been a "misunderstanding."
Panahi doesn't think there was any misunderstanding. The government understood quite well that the fate of such a renowned filmmaker would be watched closely by the film community around the world. Such scrutiny still matters in Iran, which prides itself on having one of the most highly regarded film industries in the world.
And so, a few weeks after his release, Panahi has traveled unmolested to Montreal, where he has courageously spoken his mind about what has happened in his country. Later in October he will head to the Mumbai Film Festival, where he is also serving as president of the jury. There, undoubtedly, he will also speak up for freedom and democracy in Iran.
Here is a case where film transcends its role as entertainment, and even as an art form, and becomes a force for change. Panahi's status as one of the world's greatest filmmakers, a winner of awards at Cannes and Venice and Rotterdam for films such as "The White Balloon," "The Circle," "Crimson Gold" and "Offside," has been granted a fragile immunity from being squashed like so many others in his homeland. But for how long?