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Interview with Jafar Panahi, part one

A couple of days ago, as reported in the "New York Times,"  Mahmoud Ahmadenijad proclaimed to the UN that the Iranian "people entrusted me once more with a large majority" in a ballot he described as "glorious and fully democratic." Wordlessly and  far more elequently earlier this month the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi challenged that claim when he and the other members of the jury for the Montreal Film Festival took the stage wearing green scarves -  green being the color of those opposing, Ahmadenijad's regime.

Panahi, who has been barred from filmmaking and whose last three movies -- "The Circle" (2000),  "Crimson Gold" (2003), and "Offside" (2006)  have been banned in his native land, therefore must employ other means to express himself - such as the following interview.

PK: Tell me about the green scarves.

JP: It was my own idea. I bought the scarves in Tehran and brought them here. I asked the jury if the would wear them and fortunately they accepted.

PK: And earlier as you walked on the red carpet to the opening ceremonyy you greeted a number of demonstrators. Was this spontaneous?

JP: It was spontaneous, though I wanted it to happen. When I saw those people with painted faces it reminded me of the young people In Teheran. These green scarves and green faces don't stand for any person or party specifically but the color is a sign for the future, for hope for the future. In a country with very little water like Iran the color green is a symbol of hope for the future and for civilization. It's a symbol of resistance to the government and freedom. The basic rights of the people.

I am a part of this society and  I have had all these sort of problems. For four years I haven't had the right to make a movie. I felt that since they no longer let me make movies, and since it had been almost a year and a half since I have gone to a festival, I felt that now was a good time to go to one and express my feelings. And even though filmmakers can't make movies, now we have thousands of amateur filmmakers in the streets of Tehran who can make movies that transfigure reality with their cell phones and put it online. Because in Iran all the media are controlled by the government so there isn't any other place. We don't have privately-owned TV. All the cinemas and everything are under the control of the government. All the newspapers and journals. There are some that are semi-independent but if anything happens they would close them all. Most of the journalists are in prison. In such a situation, filmmakers should be with the people.

PK: Are you worried about returning to Iran after voicing our opinion so openly here?

JP: When I'm in Iran I have the same attitude. A week before I came here I was arrested with my family and some documentary people just because we went to the cemetery for Neda [a young woman shot during an anti-Ahmadenijad demonstration who has become a symbol of the movement]. This oppression exists everywhere in the country. Whether you leave or come back, it's the same for everyone in the country.

PK: What happened when you were arrested?

JP: I was arrested at 11 o'clock. I knew I should somehow communicate to people in the outside cinema world that I was arrested. I came up with a clever way to do so. And when I did so the word went out to everybody in the cinema world what had happened to me. Some of those people came to where I was arrested and the put on pressure and somehow they were obligated to let me go. At around half past seven they released me. But during these 8 hours there was very good media coverage about what had happened. It shows the power of the cinema . They know they cannot easily face the people of cinema with impunity. The government media announced that Panahi was arrested "mistakenly." They know how to avoid telling the truth.

PK: Was this international pressure or just from Iranian filmmakers?

JP: From all over the world. I heard that some very famous filmmakers were planning to do something very serious if I was detained any longer.

PK: Because you are a filmmaker are you immune from the kind of repression suffered by the ordinary Iranian?

JP:  The country is so closed to  the outside world that they can do anything they want with the people. They will reach a point where it's very difficult for them to back down and at that point this kind of government can only  think about a huge massacre. We know that's what's going to happen but we don't know when.

PK: So you aren't very optimistic.

JP: The people who are in power don't want to lose it. They have engaged in the worst possible behavior in the prisons in Iran. If what they have done to these prisoners had not been communicated to the outside for sure they would have denied the abuses and shooting but with the tiny cell phones. This has been transmitted to the outside and other evidence has been documented.


PK: One of the recurrent symbols in your films is the circle. Do you find it ironic that the history of Iran has been circular, with the revolutionaries of 30 years ago now repressing a revolution themselves?

JP: Exactly. But now it's more difficult compared to 30 years ago. Because now it's an ideological government. A dictatorial government is better than an ideological government. Because that ideological government has its own dictatorship and a religious ideology that connects itself to God so they can apply their dictatorship even more tyrannically.

PK: So if there's change it will be much bloodier than the overthrow of the Shah?

JP: It's not predictable. In the summer before the revolution [against the Shah] if you asked someone if there might be a revolution, a very optimistic person would say maybe in a century. Yet six months later it happened. My optimistic opinion is that the people in Iran are practicing democracy on the street.  I  was with those people on the street. There were almost 2 million of them and I walked with them for an hour. Not one person said anything. There was total silence. You can't find this anywhere in the world.

But although they want to be united the government is trying to turn the people against one another. I hope this experience of tolerating each other will continue to be practiced and we will be able to keep our country unified. But I'm afraid if they don't succeed at that they will destroy the country because we have many different nations in Iran. As has been seen in the similar experiences of the USSR, in the former Yugoslavia, and in Afghanistan and Iraq huge problems can arise.

Our main goal is to be unified and tolerate each other and not just to eliminate the people in power. That's the only way we can reach our goal. So that green color is a symbol of that hope. It's not in support of Moussavi [Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition candidate defeated by Ahmadenijad in the disputed election] or any other individual. We are demonstrating for that future, that everyone might be unified under this color. Our goal is not supporting any particular person or government. We have a higher responsibility. Any time I have a bad feeling about what's happening, like about that closed circle that is in the movie "The Circle" I think of another movie I made, "Offside," where there is shown a small hope of  breaking free.


Next: Banned in Iran.

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