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IRAN: Cannes 2010: Imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi is honored at film festival [Corrected]

May 13, 2010 |  8:35 am

Amid the glitter and gaiety of the 63rd Cannes Film Festival opening, one of the nine chairs for jury members remained empty. 

Internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, slated to serve as a jury member at the festival, couldn't attend because he was being held  in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Jafar_Panahi In March 2010, plainclothes security officials raided Panahi’s Tehran home and arrested him along with his wife, daughter and 15 house guests. Though Iranian authorities shortly released the others, they held on to Panahi, accusing him of “making a film against the regime following the post-election events," according to the French daily Le Figaro.

Despite this, the prosecutor's office in Tehran argues that Panahi’s imprisonment has no political motive. 

"The arrest of Jafar Panahi is not because he is an artist or for political reason[s]," prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told the Iranian Students News Agency. 

"He is accused of some crimes and was arrested with another person following an order by a judge," reported BBC News.

Authorities had previously arrested Panahi, a supporter of the protest movement that emerged after last year's disputed presidential elections held in June, for participating in a memorial service for Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman killed in July 2009 allegedly at the hands of a pro-government militiaman. 

Iran-panahi1 Upon Panahi’s release, they prohibited him from traveling outside Iran, effectively blocking his scheduled participation in the 2010 Berlin Film Festival.

On the vanguard of the Iranian neorealist-film movement, Panahi films explore the sensitive social dimensions of life in his country, garnering international popularity. His ties to Cannes extend back to 1995, when his first feature film, "White Balloon," won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. 

The movie examines the relationship between an Iranian family and an Afghan refugee during the Persian New Year.

In 2003, Panahi won the jury award in the Un Certain Regard category, which spotlighted rising filmmakers, for "Crimson Gold," a socially charged movie about class differences in Iran.  The government has strictly banned the movie, which has been screened in more than 40 other countries.

There were outcries over Panahi's detainment from the film industry as well as human rights groups and diplomats. 

Hollywood heavy-hitters including Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro and Steven Spielberg led a petition for Panahi’s release last month. 

Amnesty International recently condemned the Iranian government for Panahi’s prolonged detainment without trial. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand issued a joint statement. 

“We call for his immediate release and urge the Tehran authorities to respect the fundamental right of Iranians to freedom of expression and creativity,” it said, as reported by Reuters.

Presiding over the jury at Cannes, director Tim Burton also supported Panahi’s release and spoke about the significance of free speech to the art of filmmaking. Asked at a news conference whether "Panahi should be released, Burton replied, "Yes, of course. All of us are for freedom of expression. We fight for that every day and in our lives."

In honor of Panahi, the 2010 Montreal World Film Festival will screen several films from the director’s oeuvre, including his most recent, "Offside," the 2006 film about Iranian girls who must dress as boys to watch a football match, as the regime strictly prohibits women from entering sports stadiums.

[Corrected: A previous version mistakenly called the movie, "Outside."]

Panahi is not the only Iranian filmmaker in jail. In January 2010, fellow director Mohammad Ali Shirzadi was arrested outside his home in Tehran. Similar to the raid faced by Panahi, Shirzadi’s computer, personal notebook and other belongings were confiscated. Shirzadi’s family believes his arrest could be connected to an interview he filmed between human-rights advocate Emadeddin Baghi and the late Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri two years ago.

-- Becky Lee Katz in Beirut

Video: Filmmaker Jafar Panahi trying to drum up support for Iran's opposition movement last August in Canada. Credit YouTube

Photo: Jafar Panahi. Credit: Johannes Eisele / AFP/Getty Images. Official poster from Cannes. Credit: festival-cannes.com

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