Along with Abbas Kiarosatmi and Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi is one of Iran’s most celebrated filmmakers. He’s also perhaps the most decorated, having won the top awards at the Venice Film Festival for The Circle and the Berlin Film Festival for Taxi. Panahi is a favorite at Cannes, where he took home the Camera d’Or for his debut The White Balloon, and the Un Certain Regard jury award for Crimson Gold. He has accomplished all this despite having had more run-ins with Iran’s Islamic government than any other artist working today. In 2009, his incarceration while shooting a film about Iran’s street protests provoked an international uproar, forcing the government to release him after three months. Although an Islamic court subsequently sought to punish him with a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Panahi has courageously defied the ban and surreptitiously continued to make films. The following is a conversation between Jafar Panahi and the film scholar Jamsheed Akrami on free expression, or the lack thereof, in Iranian cinema over the past 50 years. Akrami is a professor of film at William Paterson University and the director of a trilogy of documentaries on Iranian film: The Lost Cinema, on Iranian cinema before the revolution, Friendly Persuasion, on Iranian cinema after the revolution, and A Cinema of Discontent, on film censorship in Iran, all of which are available through the distribution company Kino Lorber.
Jamsheed Akrami: Iranian artists and intellectuals have never been blessed with freedom of expression. While the censorship under the Shah was harsh, it wasn’t as oppressive as it’s been under the Islamic government, which came to power in 1979. The changes in censorship were reflective of Iran’s transition from a modern dictatorship to a totalitarian theocracy. You must have been a teenager during the last years of the Shah. What were you doing during the revolution?
Jafar Panahi: I was 18 and in my last year of high school. My classmates and I were among the first groups of people that started shutting down schools and demonstrating in the streets. My wife jokingly likes to remind me that I was responsible for ruining the country. But back then everybody was actively involved, from the extreme right to the extreme left. It was a popular revolution and people were hoping for a democratic society, which unfortunately didn’t materialize.
I grew up in a poor neighborhood in south Tehran, where political issues were not a priority. My whole family worked blue-collar jobs, and I first became aware of class differences when my father and I were painting an army general’s house. Free expression was not allowed in the country; I remember one day a university student showed me a caricature of the Shah, and was very cautious and secretive about it.
Akrami: The last decade of the Shah’s rule saw the flourishing of the Iranian New Wave, which was a politically bold and aesthetically innovative film movement. It was somewhat similar to the French New Wave, as it grew out of progressive filmmakers’ deepening disenchantment with the status quo in Iranian cinema, but it was much more influenced by Italian neorealism in its depiction of the plights of individuals caught in unfortunate social circumstances. However, the movement didn’t weaken the hold of mainstream films, known as filmfarsi, which were escapist and uninterested in matters of social conscience. Were you following the New Wave films?
Panahi: I only became interested in New Wave films when I was older and could recognize the creative role of the directors. My father loved the filmfarsis that featured well-known movie stars. So those were the first movies I saw. He was a house painter and in the summers I would help him out. I remember one day he asked me to stay at a worksite and take care of business in his absence. But I decided to go to the movies instead. Guess what? My father was in the same movie theater and didn’t seem too pleased to see me there.
Akrami: Were you interested in Hollywood films? They dominated Iranian screens before the revolution. The movie business was so lucrative that major Hollywood studios actually set up offices in Tehran to distribute their films. People now may find it hard to believe that American movies were opening in Tehran at the same time as other international cities. Prestigious international arts and film festivals were held in Iran, and Tehran seemed like the film capital of the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iranian filmmakers were not allowed to make films critical of the ruling establishment. Censors even used to force foreign film distributors to alter plots through dubbing or re-editing to suppress any hint of subversive themes.
Panahi: I remember seeing Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind back then. Hollywood movies haven’t been shown publicly since the revolution because their content—especially the ways in which women are portrayed—is not compatible with Islamic values. But people still watch bootleg DVDs and illegally download movies at home. There is no dearth of Hollywood films in Iran, though they are not officially imported.
Akrami: The success of the first New Wave films inspired many aspiring filmmakers to take advantage of new opportunities and make their first films. How did you become interested in filmmaking?
Panahi: My first exposure to filmmaking came when I was 12. I was a member of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, and there was a casting call for a short film. They needed a chubby boy my age, and I got the part. That experience sparked my interest in movies.
WHEN THE GOVERNMENT HAS KICKED FILMMAKERS OUT THE DOOR, WE’VE JUMPED BACK IN THROUGH THE WINDOW
Akrami: Going back to the revolution, I was a student in the United States when it happened. I’ve heard people say that they experienced a kind of unprecedented, heavenly freedom right afterward. That freedom was short-lived, though. The Islamic revolutionaries were waging an anti-Western campaign, and they perceived cinema to be a manifestation of Western corruption. So they started to clamp down on the media and curtailed free expression in a much more oppressive manner than before. Incredibly, they also banned all movies made under the Shah, simply because women’s hair was not covered. What are your memories of those early post-revolutionary years?
Panahi: Right after the revolution, I had to begin my mandatory two-year army service in the Kurdish region of Iran. The months after the revolution were a period of transition, and there was no organized control of the media. The Shah’s government had fallen, but the new Islamic government had not quite established itself.
Akrami: A year after the revolution the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) erupted, which must have coincided with the time you were in the army. Is it true that you were captured during the war?
Panahi: Yes, but I was captured by Iranian Kurdish guerrillas who were fighting the Islamic government. They kept me and 11 others for 80 days. They were on the run themselves, and they moved us from village to village until we decided to stage a hunger strike to force them to release us.
During the war, I was given a 16-mm camera and assigned to shoot footage for television news packages. I was happy to be carrying a camera instead of a gun. The army offered me a job as a videographer after my service, but I decided to go back to Tehran and enroll in film school.
Akrami: Have you thought of making a movie based on your wartime experiences?
Panahi: After I finished Offside (2006) I wrote a script about the last days of the war, but the censors rejected it. I think they thought they couldn’t trust me with a movie about the war. The government thinks it has a monopoly on the war and Islamic issues, so they wouldn’t want anyone other than their own filmmakers to touch those subjects.
Akrami: You got your film education at a college run by IRIB, the government-controlled Islamic Republic broadcasting agency.
Panahi: My attendance at that college coincided with the moment when the Islamic Republic shut down all the universities under the pretext of the Cultural Revolution. A few other students and I suggested putting together a film archive for the college while it was closed. The administrators agreed, and this was the beginning of a productive period for me. I had the chance to find and watch many American films and world cinema classics that had been shown in Iran, though the hidden film prints we could locate were not in good shape.
When the college re-opened, it took me five years to graduate a four-year program because they were constantly changing the curriculum. Many courses I had taken would later be eliminated. I ended up taking almost 180 credits to graduate when only 144 credits were required. But I was happy to be there because the college had the best facilities in the country.
Akrami: But a free education there comes with a commitment to work at a TV station after graduation.
Panahi: Yes, we were contractually obligated to serve in one of the provinces. I had never been to the Persian Gulf, so I chose the port city of Bandar Abbas. While there, I got a chance to make a couple of short films. One of them, “The Friend,” was inspired by Mr. Kiarostami’s first short, “The Bread and the Alley.” His film was about a dog blocking a boy from entering an alley; in my film there were two friends, and one was blocking the other’s path.
After making the shorts, I applied for a transfer to Tehran. I also entered two films into the Fajr Film Festival. Both were rejected, and I was terribly disappointed. I was waiting one day at the festival’s offices with my film reels in my hands when I saw Mr. Kiarostami passing by. I stopped him and told him I had made a film as an homage to his first film, but that the festival rejected it. He noticed how big the reels were and asked me how long the film was. I said, “40 minutes.” He smiled and said, “My film was only 10 minutes long. How come your homage is four times longer?” That meeting paved the way for me to later get a job as his assistant when he was making Through the Olive Trees (1994).
Akrami: Kiarostami wrote the script for your debut feature The White Balloon (1995), about a little girl who wants to buy a goldfish to celebrate the Iranian New Year. At that time, Iranian cinema had gained an international reputation for a particular genre of children’s films, as some of the best Iranian films competing in international festivals revolved around child characters. This included Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home (1986), Amir Naderi’s The Runner (1985), Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1998), and your first two films, to name just a few. Interestingly, Kiarostami had already moved on to making films with adult characters, but he wrote a children’s movie for you.
Panahi: When Through the Olive Trees was in post-production, he asked me about my next project. I mentioned The White Balloon as an idea for a short film. He thought the idea had the potential to be developed into a feature-length film and offered to write the script for me. He also made a strong recommendation to my boss at IRIB and encouraged him to support the project financially. He told him I could become another Amir Naderi!
Akrami: Well, he was right. [Amir Naderi used to make so-called “street films” before the revolution—films whose plots unfolded mostly in street scenes.] After the revolution, you continued in the tradition of Naderi with The White Balloon and other films before you were banned from working.
The White Balloon was one of the first Iranian films to receive decent distribution in the United States. When it was about to come out, I was working as a consultant with October Films, an independent distribution company. They were excited about releasing the film but were not sure how to market an Iranian film when the memory of the hostage crisis was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. A company executive jokingly suggested that they could use taglines such as “The movie that will take your heart hostage” or “A movie you’ll love, from a country you don’t like.”
Panahi: They bought the film at Cannes. It was the first time I attended the festival, and I knew nothing about the film business. I remember one day, two gentlemen approached me and introduced themselves as employees of different American distribution companies. The one from October Films told me that he had beaten the other by two minutes to buy the rights. He said he did it so his child could see it.
IT WAS WIDELY BELIEVED THAT FILMMAKERS WERE USING THE GUISE OF CHILDREN’S FILMS TO AVOID THE ATTENTION OF CENSORS
Akrami: Iranian cinema and Iranian politics have had a symbiotic relationship over the years. Films have benefited from having Iran and Iranian politics as context, and the government has enjoyed the prestige the films bring to the country by winning top international awards, which the government usually takes undeserved credit for. A government official even claimed that the Oscar A Separation (2011) won for best foreign-language film was the result of their lobbying in Hollywood! This was the same government that had attempted to shut down the film while it was being shot.
Panahi: The hardliners in Iran have problems with certain films and filmmakers. They cannot tolerate independent cinema. When the Ahmadinejad government came to power in 2005, it took an aggressive stance and claimed it was going to strongly influence international film festivals. That’s when it said it had lobbied on behalf of A Separation.
I don’t think independent filmmakers coexist amicably with the government. We have always tried to avoid the government and shield ourselves from its interference. But the hardliners have failed to silence independent filmmakers. When they’ve kicked us out the door, we’ve jumped back in through the window to do what we needed to do. Fortunately, there are also some moderate elements in government who see cinema as a sort of goodwill ambassador that can present positive views of the Iranian people.
Akrami: That symbiotic relationship has also adversely affected the Iranian films. After The White Balloon was submitted to the Academy for Oscar consideration, the Islamic government attempted to withdraw it because of some political skirmish between the U.S. and Iran.
Panahi: I was summoned to the offices of the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, where an official put a tape recorder in front of me and said, “We understand you want to boycott the Oscars. Please make your statement.” I was puzzled and said, “Who told you that? I have no such intention.” Later I learned that they had already told their news agency that the film had been pulled from Oscar consideration. I felt like a pawn in a political fight between two countries. It wasn’t just President [George W.] Bush who was propagating the notion that you are either with us or against us—the hardliners in Iran had the same exact attitude.
Akrami: Your second film, The Mirror (1997), also featured child actors, but like many Iranian children’s films, it was not necessarily suitable for children. It was about a little girl, a first-grader, who was dissatisfied with a movie she was acting in and wanted to quit. The film was about nascent self-reflexivity in Iranian cinema and wasn’t really meant for children. It was widely believed that filmmakers were using the guise of children’s films to avoid the attention of censors. In other words, the films used a child’s perspective to tackle the social issues embedded in their narratives.
Panahi: True. The films were about children but not for them. With The Mirror, I was also trying to experiment with form. I wanted to tell two different stories, one for each side of the mirror (the mirror was literally the camera within the film), each representing a different reality. I pursued the same approach in my next film, The Circle (2000), by using multiple narratives and trying to shape them in a cohesive form. I included adult characters in The Circle because there were social issues that I could only explore through them. Besides, I thought that the children’s film tradition was wearing thin, and that it was time for me to start dealing more directly with problems we were grappling with as a society.
Akrami:The Circle signaled a radical and somewhat unexpected change in your career. It was a departure from a world populated by children to a gloomy adult world featuring the plights of several despondent women. Your vision grew considerably darker. What happened?
Panahi: Your vision naturally grows darker when you leave the innocent world of children and enter the world of adults. The presence of children tends to soften everything, even bitter realities. But if you are a socially committed filmmaker, you can’t close your eyes to adult realities, no matter how dark they are. I didn’t create them—I just shed light on them.
Akrami: You once told me that you created the adult characters in The Circle to see what the little girls in your early films might be like when they grow up.
Panahi: I was interested in exploring the challenges those girls would face as grown women in a society like ours. The little girl in The White Balloon goes through a lot to take home a goldfish. I was wondering how she would deal with her problems as a young woman, and I tried to find answers in The Circle.
Akrami: Did you intend for the film to be a statement about the diminishing rights of women in Iran?
Panahi: Again, if you make films about the realities of Iran, you can’t ignore the restrictions imposed on women.
Akrami:The Circle marked the beginning of your seemingly unending problems with the Islamic Republic censors. It didn’t receive a screening permit in Iran, but you surreptitiously sent it to the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion. Despite winning this highly coveted award, the film remained banned in Iran.
Panahi: My first encounter with the censors happened when I made The Mirror and was criticized for showing a bus in which women and men were sitting in separate sections. They thought I shouldn’t have shown that because it reflected badly on the country. My response was to ask, why segregate men and women on buses in the first place if you are ashamed of it?
When I sent the censors the script for The Circle, they immediately rejected it. I didn’t give up and kept pushing them for about a year to approve the script. The reformist newspapers also started criticizing the censors for keeping a filmmaker who had won two major international awards from making another film. I finally got the permit to shoot the script. But government agencies wouldn’t help me when I needed their assistance. I couldn’t even get a police car I needed for a scene. We ended up painting a vehicle to use as a police car, which was technically illegal, but we had no choice.
THE CENSORS ARE SENSITIVE TO NAMES: ALL THE GOOD CHARACTERS MUST HAVE ISLAMIC NAMES LIKE “MUHAMMED” OR “HUSSEIN”
Akrami: I understand that when you first submitted the film to the Fajr Film Festival, they asked you to cut 18 minutes of it.
Panahi: And I told them that I refused to cut even one frame. I watched the film with the director of the festival and he couldn’t persuade me that there was anything wrong with it. He thought the film was too critical of the political climate, which is what they always say when they don’t allow a film to be shown. He also said that the organizers had invited many foreign guests who wanted to see my new film, and that it would be a shame to tell them the film was unavailable. But I didn’t compromise.
I did invite a few festival representatives to my house. Alberto Barbera officially invited the film to the Venice Film Festival after he saw it. But the Ministry Of Culture and Islamic Guidance refused to send a print, claiming the film didn’t have a screening permit. Fortunately, thanks to my fellow filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I had already sent a copy abroad. After learning about the film’s problems, he offered to put my reels in a box labeled with the title of his own film, Gabbeh (1996). The Ministry was sending Gabbeh to international festivals at the time, and Makhmalbaf thought the box wouldn’t attract suspicion. That’s how we arranged for the print to be shipped to Venice, although the Ministry also gave in and agreed to let the film be shown a couple of days before the festival. They had learned the festival had a print, and summoned me to say that they knew I had shipped out the film through a foreign embassy in Tehran. I denied this, and didn’t reveal Makhmalbaf’s role until many years later, after he had left the country.
Akrami:Crimson Gold (2003) is about inequality and the widening divide between the haves and have-nots in Iran. I imagine that is not a favorite subject of the country’s ruling class—or the censors who represent their interests. The film follows the tragic consequences of a veteran’s moral disillusionment with the society he has returned to. Its brutal realism was not sanitized to the satisfaction of the government, especially the hardliners who claim to advocate for an equitable and pious Islamic society.
Panahi: Thanks to the fact that The Circle won the Golden Lion at Venice, the censors couldn’t keep me from making my next film. There were many delicate and problematic details in the original script of Crimson Gold that we left out of the copy sent to the Ministry of Guidance for approval. That version did not mention the protagonist’s war history, how he had been psychologically affected by it, or how one of his former commanders had compromised his principles. Predictably, the film did not receive a screening permit. The censors didn’t even bother to ask me to delete anything because they knew I wouldn’t do it.
Akrami: Historically, Iranian filmmakers have been a suppressed group, and are always trying to expand their creative breathing space. You break some taboos in Crimson Gold, including rules regarding the use of language, and of physical contact between men and women. Characters in Iranian films are also unrealistically polite, but we hear sexually suggestive language in your film. Do you consciously try to challenge the censors and push the envelope with every film you make?
Panahi: When I am making a film, I don’t think about the possible reactions it might provoke, or whether some scenes could be shown or not. I only concentrate on what’s right for the film. I never start with a conscious decision to break taboos. But if my characters need to do or say something that might end up being controversial, I won’t hesitate to do it. That’s why I also showed my protagonist drinking in the film, which caused a big stir since he was a veteran. I avoid anything that would diminish or distort reality in my films. If I can’t believe something myself, then how could I expect my audience to buy it?
Akrami: Probably more than the physical contact and risqué language, the young, rich character who wears a tie and is portrayed as kind and generous must have bothered the censors. He looks like a typical villain from the post-revolutionary films sanctioned by the government.
Panahi: Along the same lines, the censors are also sensitive to names. All the good characters must have Islamic names like “Muhammed” or “Hussein,” and the bad guys must have names rooted in Iranian culture and mythology. I don’t follow that in my films. I don’t even divide my characters into good or bad people. The characters who commit crimes in my films are shown as victims of their circumstances.
Akrami: Even the slightest physical contact between men and women is forbidden in Iranian films. A scene in which men and women greet one another and can’t shake hands, or one in which a mother can’t hug her son, may convey the false impression that Iranians are cold and uncaring, which is far from the truth. Showing female characters in the privacy of their homes with their hair covered also creates a tarnished and inaccurate image of Iran in the eyes of the rest of the world. As a filmmaker with a realistic approach, these restrictions must be deeply unsettling to you. I wonder if that’s why all the films you made before your 2010 ban were set outside. In other words, perhaps you didn’t shoot scenes of indoor family life because restrictions like the mandatory use of hijab would render them fake.
Panahi: That’s quite right. That’s also why most of my films take place within a short period of time. A story with a limited duration helps me stay outside, and doesn’t require going back and forth between exterior and interior scenes. I try to pick short stories that happen over a few hours or over a day, and are set in public spaces.
Akrami: Have the censors ever told you in any official manner what they object to in your films? I’ve heard some filmmakers complain that they are never given the reasons why their films were banned. The Ministry of Guidance used to publish guidelines defining the restrictions, but they stopped doing that. I guess the lack of clarity gives them a freer hand in censoring films and asking for what they call “corrections.”
Panahi: They never put anything in writing. They may just call you into their offices and tell you something verbally, as they did with me when they banned The Circle. You never get any official documents from them. They impose several stages of control over filmmakers. When you submit your script, they call for changes. After they approve your script, they occasionally monitor your production to make sure you are shooting the approved script. Then, they see the finished film and may require more changes. I have always avoided giving in to this extensive system of control, and I’ve paid a price: My films haven’t received screening permits in my own country.
WHEN I WANT TO GIVE COPIES OF MY OWN FILMS TO MY FRIENDS, I HAVE TO BUY THE DVDS!
Akrami: With Offside (2006) you returned to the issue of gender apartheid in Islamic Iran. The film deals with how Iranian women are banned from watching men’s sports in stadiums. The title refers to a violation in soccer, and your film is about violation of women’s rights.
Panahi: If you’re familiar with soccer rules, you know that “offside” refers to a line behind the defenders that shouldn’t be crossed. We have many similar red lines in Iranian cinema and society to keep us from advancing. So we thought that although the title had one specific meaning, it could also signify something more universal.
When I decided to make Offside, people warned me the government would soon lift the ban, and that the film would become dated and irrelevant. My response was that I couldn’t see the ban being lifted anytime soon, and it is still in effect a dozen years later. I also told people I was making the film as a document about a certain historical anomaly. Historical documents don’t get dated.
Akrami: It’s hard not to notice the irony of imposing a ban on a film about a cultural ban. Were you hoping your film would change the government ban on women attending soccer games?
Panahi: No, as I mentioned earlier, when I make a film, I don’t think about how it might affect people or policies. I wasn’t surprised they banned the film. I hadn’t even submitted its script for approval. They didn’t bother us as we were shooting because we were using a small video camera and they didn’t think we were doing a serious project.
Akrami:Offside and your other banned films have appeared in the contraband DVD market in Iran. So the Iranian filmgoers can still see your films, just not the way they should be seen—in a theater, on a large screen.
Panahi: DVDs of Iranian films from foreign countries normally find their way into the underground market here, and that’s how people get to see them. It was a different story with the Offside DVDs, though. Because it was soccer-related, I desperately wanted the film to be shown in Iran before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The censors objected. But all of a sudden the DVDs appeared in the market and the authorities blamed me for distributing them.
Akrami: I guess repression always breeds its own antidotes. But you ended up losing the money the film could have made in the domestic market.
Panahi: The funny thing is, not only did I not make any money, but when I want to give copies of my own films to my friends, I have to buy the DVDs. I don’t even get a discount!
Akrami: In your film Taxi (2015), in which you pretend to be a cab driver, one of the passengers you pick up is a DVD dealer and we see how bootleg DVDs are distributed illegally, which is to say, not in a terribly clandestine manner.
Panahi: The DVD dealer you see in the film actually studied law, but he earns a living delivering bootleg DVDs to clients’ houses. Iran has a high rate of unemployment among college graduates. There are shops that have distribution permits to sell DVDs, but if they know you, they will also offer illegal titles, some of which may even have been dubbed in Farsi outside of Iran.
Akrami: Iranian filmmakers can be divided into pro-establishment and independent camps. Anti-establishment filmmakers do exist in Iran, but because dissent isn’t tolerated in the Islamic Republic, they’re not allowed to express themselves, and the consequences for doing so can range from being jailed to being banned from working to being forced into exile. Even being an independent filmmaker is frowned upon. Only filmmakers loyal to the government get preferential treatment. Maybe if a pro-establishment filmmaker had made a film like Offside, they wouldn’t have banned it. The government seems to allow a little criticism, but it must come from their trusted filmmakers.
Panahi: Yes, here who makes the film is more important than what the film is about. They rejected my war-themed script. But if one of their filmmakers had submitted the same script, I am sure they would have approved it and provided them all sorts of facilities for the film’s production, too.
Akrami: You’ve been labelled a dissident filmmaker, an artist who views his society through a dark lens, but you’d rather think of yourself as a socially committed filmmaker who reports on his reality; if the reporting is dark, it’s because reality is dark.
Panahi: I have always asked the censors if there are misrepresentations or lies in my films. They haven’t been able to find anything, but they accuse me of showing the country in a bad light. I tell them that most of the roughly 100 movies produced here every year are movies they approve of—why can’t they tolerate a few films about our problems?
Akrami: I think your films are cultural products of their time. You can’t live in post-revolutionary Iran and be oblivious to social ills. Artists with a social conscience are obligated to deal with issues of inequality and injustice in their work. Italian neorealism was a byproduct of a troubled period in Italy after World War II. Filmmakers had no choice but to reflect bleak conditions in their films.
Panahi: There are some filmmakers who can only make movies in response to what’s happening in their environment. I belong to that group. I can’t betray my convictions by making compromised films. You remember once I was arrested in an airport in New York because I didn’t submit to mandatory fingerprinting. I called you from the airport while I was detained. It was a challenging incident for me.
Akrami: Yes, it was in 2001 and you were arrested for not having a transit visa as you were flying from Hong Kong to Mar del Plata in Argentina. You had already told Winstar, the distributor of The Circle, that you wouldn’t do a publicity tour in the U.S. as a protest gesture against the fingerprinting of Iranian citizens in this country. You told me you had vehemently refused to be fingerprinted, telling the customs agents in broken English, “Me artist, no finger.” They chained you to a bench and detained you overnight. You called me the following morning, but before I could come to the airport with a lawyer, you had agreed to be deported back to Hong Kong.
Panahi: I didn’t agree to anything. They gave me a choice of either getting fingerprinted or being deported. I could’ve just given in, but I felt I would have been morally compromising myself if I did. So they put shackles on my wrists and ankles and didn’t take them off until they put me on a plane to Hong Kong.
Akrami: A month later the National Board of Review, a society of film experts that celebrates achievements in contemporary cinema, gave you the Freedom of Expression Award. You wrote a strong letter to expose and protest the inhuman treatment you had received at the JFK Airport.
Panahi: I was questioning the merit of the award itself coming from the same country that had treated me like a criminal. Of course, I could differentiate between the people celebrating my work and the racist agents carrying out racist orders, but I was trying to bring attention to the problem.
Akrami: Unfortunately, this was not your last brush with detention. You had many more run-ins with authorities in Iran and have sometimes ended up being arrested or jailed.
Panahi: In 2007, as I was returning home from a trip to Australia after serving on a festival jury, my passport was confiscated and I was taken in for interrogation. Authorities chastised me for giving a best actor award to an actor in the Israeli film The Band’s Visit (2007). Interestingly, I had also previously voted to give that film a best picture award when I was the president of the jury at the Antalya Film Festival in Turkey. I told them it was unethical for me to allow a film’s nationality to influence my judgment of its artistic merits.
Akrami: It sounds absurd, but the Iranian government has prohibited any cultural contact between Iranians and Israelis.
Panahi: They probably expected me to act like the Iranian wrestlers who pretend to be injured or sick when they are paired against Israeli wrestlers in international competitions.
Akrami: Many top Iranian athletes have wasted championship opportunities as a result of this unwritten discriminatory policy, but they are always hailed as heroes and financially rewarded by the Islamic government. You were also arrested a few times during the Green Movement demonstrations in Iran in 2009. When you were heading the jury at 2009 Montreal Film Festival, you even asked fellow jury members to show their solidarity with the protesters in Iran, after which your passport was confiscated again. Then, one evening in March 2010, your apartment in Tehran was raided while you were shooting a film.
Panahi: We were making a film about a family of four in the wake of the Tehran street protests. The government agents said we were making an illegal film and confiscated our camera and tapes. Everyone was arrested, including my wife and daughter. The crew and my family were let go shortly after. Mohammed Rasoulof, a fellow filmmaker, and another crew member were released after two weeks, but they kept me for almost three months.
Akrami: You were eventually freed on bail thanks to your hunger strike and unprecedented pressure from abroad, especially from fellow international filmmakers.
Panahi: I decided to go on hunger strike about 75 days into my incarceration. One night they raided the cell I was sharing with three other inmates. They took us into another room and searched us individually. When they didn’t find anything, they pushed us out in the prison yard and kept us in the cold for an hour. I learned later that they had raided my apartment at the same time looking for a film. The following day, an interrogator asked me, “What’s the title of the film you are making here?” I asked, “What do you mean? How could I make a film here?” He said, “The film you are making about your life here.” I was still puzzled and didn’t know what he was referring to. He didn’t like my silence and shouted, “OK, when we throw your daughter in jail, then you’ll tell us about your film.” He said it in a threatening and vulgar tone that made me really upset and concerned about my daughter’s safety. That was when I decided to go on a hunger strike.
When I returned to my cell, I shared what happened with my cellmates. It was then that we figured out what must have transpired. I had been waxing a bit philosophical one day, saying that the whole prison experience was another chapter in the movie of my life. One of the cellmates had relayed that comment in the same tone to his wife in a phone call, telling her that Jafar Panahi was making the movie of his life in prison. The guards who were monitoring the call had taken that quite literally and thought I was making a film in prison!
Akrami: You were sentenced in 2010 to a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban from making films, doing interviews, and traveling abroad.
Panahi: The trial was a sham. It was obvious the verdict had already been dictated to the judge and whatever I had to say would not have made any difference. One of my interrogators also showed up during the trial, and I said as long as he was present in the courtroom, I would not recognize the legitimacy of the court. Then he got angry and started insulting me, saying, “Who the hell do you think you are? I’ve invited Michael Moore to visit and he’ll be in Tehran in a couple of months.”
Akrami: Well, I can tell you he was partially right. Michael Moore told me that the government had invited him repeatedly, and that he always told them that they must stop mistreating Jafar Panahi and other Iranian filmmakers before he could accept their invitation.
THEY WANTED TO LEAVE ME WITH NO CHOICE BUT TO GO INTO EXILE IF I WANTED TO CONTINUE WORKING
Panahi: I told the interrogator it would be great if he could get Michael Moore to come to Iran!
Akrami: I must say that the way the Iranian judiciary has treated you doesn’t make any sense. First they slap you with a harsh and unjustifiable sentence, and then they decline to implement it without any explanation. They haven’t even stopped you from making films as long as you don’t go through their official channels of monitoring and control. Ironically, that’s what every filmmaker in every repressive regime wishes for. Your verdict was meant to send you to jail and deprive you of ever making another film, but actually it has been like a permit to work freely, albeit not too visibly. You are barred from leaving the country, but you can move freely and work within Iran.
Panahi: It’s all part of a policy of intimidation by the government. They thought they could make an example out of me to intimidate others. But they had no idea that the international reaction to my case would be so strong. That’s why they eventually released me, but issued a harsh verdict. They wanted to leave me with no choice but to go into exile if I wanted to continue working.
They didn’t think I would stay and try to find ways to make films. But I did. After that, I knew I had to work with very small crews in covered locations. My crew and I wouldn’t discuss anything on the phone or on social media. We would always go to each other’s houses to discuss plans. When I finish a film, the government may now think twice before doing anything because they don’t want another international outcry. A reformist politician once told me that the government had always been afraid of the people with political agendas—they had no idea that they would have to pay such a high price for harassing a filmmaker!
Akrami: What is your own understanding of the situation? Do you see a resolution in sight?
Panahi: No, the hardliners would like to keep the situation as is. They need to maintain an air of crisis in the country in order to rule. If it would lead to a way out of this situation, sometimes I wish they would just come and arrest me. I have so many ideas I cannot work on because of the limitations I have been condemned to live with. I don’t feel free. My lawyer friend, Nasrin Sotoudeh, makes a good point in Taxi when she says that they release you from a small prison into a larger one because they’re still after you. I feel I am in that large prison now.
Akrami: They have forced several Iranian filmmakers into exile: Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his family, Bahamn Ghobadi, and Babak Payami, to name a few. How do you think banning you was an attempt on their part to make you leave?
Panahi: My lawyer told me right after the verdict was announced, “You are charged with ‘propaganda against the regime’ and ‘acting against national security,’ for which the maximum penalty is six years of imprisonment.” She thought that the 20-year ban on filmmaking was meant to make me leave the country.
Akrami: But if that was the message they were trying to send, how would you leave if your passport was confiscated and you were barred from leaving the country for 20 years?
Panahi: They wanted me to leave illegally, which is not hard to do. A friend told me he could get me out of the country in 48 hours if I wanted to leave. They deliberately confiscated my passport to force me to leave illegally, so I wouldn’t be able to return. Even before the ban, an official in the Ministry of Guidance told me I’d be better off working outside the country. But I want to stay and work here. That’s a right they cannot take away from me.
Akrami: In some ways, your career might eventually be divided into two periods: preban and post-ban, with five and four feature-length films in each period. The differences between the two periods are hard to ignore. For one, all your films before the ban were mostly shot outside, but the first two films you made after the ban, This is Not a Film (2012) and Closed Curtain (2014), were shot indoors; the third, Taxi, within the confines of a cab. You also star in your post-ban films as the main character. They are all strikingly personal films but they don’t show you as an isolated individual. Rather, you’re depicted as socially engaged and eager to probe social issues through interacting with the characters you bring into your world.
Panahi: I used to be able to take my camera directly into places where problems were. Now that I’m not allowed to do that, I have to reflect on what I can experience. So I’m limited in the subjects I can choose. They have to fit within the conditions I live in. I explore social issues, but I use myself as an observer now. In This is Not a Film, I was still grappling with my verdict and couldn’t think about anything except that. When I was making Closed Curtain, I was badly depressed, which is reflected in the film. By the time I was making Taxi I had come to terms with my circumstances and was feeling somewhat better. I need to be careful to not attract attention when I work, and I don’t want to put anybody in any kind of jeopardy as a result of working with me. That’s why I need to keep my cast and crew at a skeletal level, and if there is a part I can play, I just do it myself.
Akrami: In the wake of the widespread, week-long street protests earlier this year, some high-ranking government officials made statements affirming the people’s right to protest.
Panahi: The right to protest is guaranteed in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. But all kinds of protests have been quelled over the past 40 years. Authorities recently arrested 29 women for challenging the mandatory hijab law. Those women were exercising their right to protest. In an Instagram post, I asked the government to allow a general referendum so people could freely voice their opinions about the Islamic Republic. I am not holding my breath, though. It wouldn’t be beneficial to those high-ranking people to allow any changes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.