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Jafar Panahi: A revolutionary and A FEMINIST


DIRECTOR'S CUT: A visibly frail Panahi at home after leaving prison. He was released after he went on hunger strike for more than a week to protest against his imprisonment. He had been in Teheran's notorious Evin jail since March

At the Cannes Film Festival last month, a little man's presence was greatly felt by his absence. At every public function, a seat was left empty in honour of filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who would have been a jury member had he not been incarcerated by the Iranian government on a host of dubious charges. Veteran French actress Juliette Binoche broke down during a press conference when fellow Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami announced that Panahi had gone on a hunger strike within the jail to protest the ill-treatment meted out to him by the government in Teheran.

The announcement galvanised the global cinematic community into unified indignation. Hollywood's most powerful filmmakers - Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone among many others - issued statements asking for his release. The vocal support evidently rattled the Iranian regime enough to ensure Panahi's release on May 25.

So what makes the world stand up and listen to this filmmaker who has no commercial inclinations whatsoever ? What makes the Iranian regime fear this little man?

The answer has something to do with Iranian cinema overall. Ironically, censorship in the country led filmmakers, right from the advent of the Iranian New Wave in 1969, to device ingenious ways to tell the truth. By blending fiction with reality and using a documentary style in feature films, Iranian directors have developed a visual poetry in cinema and infused it with a humanistic concern. They are influenced by their local identity, opposed to influences from other films centres like Hollywood and Europe.


Jafar Panahi, a close friend, compatriot and disciple of Abbas Kiarostami, stormed into the world of cinema in 1995 with a film about a girl's attempt to buy a goldfish while local traders try to cheat her of her money. The White Balloon was, thus, a commentary not just on Iranian life, but the world at large, where greed is not satisfied till it has robbed the innocence that is truly precious to humanity. The film won numerous awards, including the Golden Camera at Cannes.

Panahi's 1997 film The Mirror is about a little girl who tries to find her way through the maze of big people. However, midway through the film, the director takes a leap of cinematic narrative rarely dared as the actress playing the little girl suddenly refuses to act, stating that she wants to go home. A handheld camera then follows the young actress, who now tries to make her way to her real home. The audience is suddenly jolted out of a perfectly good narrative feature into a sort of documentary where the frames are neither colour-corrected nor composed. Though the wall between the fictional and real world is broken, it is left to the audiences to decipher whether the two worlds are really that far apart.


The Circle, released in 2000, is another bold experiment. The film, despite being linear, is like a relay race where the stories of different women in the street unfold one after another. The only common thread between them is that, according to Iranian customs and laws, they are all 'fallen' women. Not stopping long enough to tell the full story of one character, yet making the audience empathise enough with everyone, the film gives a glimpse into the treatment meted out to a large cross-section of Iranian women.

Panahi's preoccupation with women in Iran continues in his 2005 film Cafê Tansit. After the death of her husband, an independent woman defies a tradition that expects her to marry her dead husband's brother and reopens her husband's cafê, which goes on to become successful. The envious brother-in-law, who she rejected, complains to the authorities. Ironically, this veiled indictment of Iranian traditions became the first film to be submitted by the country to the Academy Awards.

Panahi is more direct in his criticism of his nation's treatment of women in his 2006 venture Offside, a simple story of a few football fanatic women who try to sneak in to watch the Iran-Bahrain match, but are caught by the country's notorious 'vice squad'. The fact that women are not allowed to watch football matches in stadiums becomes a tool in the hand of Panahi, who uses it to expose how fundamental rights of women in the country are trampled upon. The film questions the morality of men who hold themselves superior. As in his other films, the women are no less capable or ingenious than the men, but are victimised because of their gender.

Unlike many other feminist filmmakers worldwide, Panahi, however, refrains from stereotyping men as villains. The men in his films are kind, but too wedded to tradition to perceive what is right from a humanistic point of view.


Thus while his predecessors and contemporaries have concerned themselves with life in Iran overall, Panahi's preoccupation has been with the condition of women in Iran and, indeed, in many parts of the world. With a compassion and sensitivity rare in cinema, he has put forth their case in film after film. Even in films that have not been about women - Crimson Gold, for instance, is a story of a pizza delivery man in Teheran - he takes on the regime.

This cinematic criticism and his vocal support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi, as well as his protest against the disputed elections last year, inflamed the administration, which incarcerated him for three months from March and threatened his family, ostensibly for his trying to make another film criticising the powers in Teheran.

Binoche, who has known Panahi for 15 years, aptly described him in a press conference at Cannes saying, "For his supporters and enemies alike, Panahi has become the closest thing world cinema has to a bonafide revolutionary, the dangerous firebrand who will not be silenced. "

And now the world awaits the next film from this revolutionary filmmaker and poet of cinema who refuses to mend his ways.

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