On the campaign to free Jafar Panahi, and Julian Assange

Just before Christmas, Scoop reported on the silencing of Iran’s leading film-maker, Jafar Panahi. Panahi has been imprisoned by the authorities for six years and banned from making movies, going abroad, or talking to the media for 20 years.

As part what is now a global campaign to bring about Panahi’s release, there will be a screening of Panahi’s film “Offside” at Wellington’s Paramount theatre on Sunday 30 January of 6.15pm (Admission by koha). Speakers will include Amnesty NZ, Bill Gosden of the New Zealand International Film Festival and film-maker Faramarz Beheshti, from the Iranian community.

Here, in full, is Panahi’s defence statement that he read to the court in November. It is a moving defence of the human right to free expression and the autonomy of art, against the forces of repression and tyranny.

Your Honor, I would like to present my defence in two parts.

Part 1: What they say

In the past few days I have been watching my favorite films again, though I did not have access to some of them, which are among the greatest films of the history of cinema. My house was raided on the night of March 1st, 2010 while my colleague Mr. Rasoulof and I were in the process of shooting what we intended to be a socially conscious art house film. The people, who identified themselves as agents of the Ministry of Intelligence, arrested us along with other crew members without presenting any warrants. They confiscated my collection of films as well and never returned them to me. Subsequently, the only reference made to those films was by the prosecutor in charge of my case, who asked me: “What are these obscene films you’re collecting?”

I have learned how to make films inspired by those outstanding films that the prosecutor deemed obscene. Believe me I have just as much difficulty understanding how they could be called obscene as I do comprehending how the activity for which I was arrested could be seen as a crime. My case is a perfect example of being punished before committing a crime. You are putting me on trial for making a film that at the time of our arrest was only thirty per cent shot. You must have heard that the famous creed “There is no god, except Allah”, turns into blasphemy if you only say the first part and omit the second part. In the same vein, how can you establish that a crime has been committed by looking at 30% of the rushes for a film that has not been edited yet?

I do not comprehend the charge of obscenity directed at the classics of the film history, nor do I understand the crime I am accused of. If these charges are true, you are putting not only us on trial but the socially conscious, humanistic, and artistic Iranian cinema as well, a cinema which tries to stay beyond good and evil, a cinema that does not judge nor surrender to power or money but tries to honestly reflect a realistic image of the society.

One of the charges against me is attempting to encourage demonstrations and incite protests with this film. All through my career I have emphasized that I am a socially committed filmmaker, not a political one. My main concerns are social issues; therefore my films are social dramas not political statements. I never wanted to act as a judge or a prosecutor. I am not a film maker who judges but one that invites other to see. I don’t get to decide for others or to write any kind of manual for anybody; please allow me to repeat my pretension to place my cinema beyond good and evil. This kind of belief has caused my colleagues and myself a lot of trouble; many of my films have been banned, along with the films of other filmmakers like me. But it is unprecedented in Iranian cinema to arrest and imprison a filmmaker for making a film, and harass his family while he is in prison. This is a new development in the history of Iranian cinema that will be remembered for a long time.

I have been accused of participating in demonstrations. No Iranian filmmaker was allowed to use his camera to capture the events but you cannot forbid an artist to observe ! As an artist it is my responsibility to observe in order to get inspired, and create. I was an observer, and it was my right to observe.

I have been accused of making a film without permission. Is it really necessary to point out here that no law has been passed by the parliament regarding the need for a permit to make a film? There are only some internal memos which are going through changes each time the deputy minister is changed.

I have been accused of not giving a script to the actors. In our film making genre where we work mostly with non professional actors, this is a very routine way of film making practiced by myself and by many of my colleagues. The cast mostly consists of non-actors. Therefore, the director does not find it necessary to give them a script. This accusation sounds more like a joke that has no place in the judicial system.

I have been accused of having signed a declaration. I have signed one; an open letter signed by 37 prominent film makers, in order to express their concern about the turn of the actual events in the country. I was one of them. Unfortunately, instead of listening to the concerns, we were accused of treachery. However, these filmmakers are the very same people who have expressed their concerns in the past about injustices around the world. How can you expect them to remain indifferent to the fate of their own country ?

I have been accused of organizing demonstrations at the opening of Montreal Film Festival. At least some truth and fairness should back up any accusations. I was the chair of the jury in Montreal and arrived only a few hours before the opening. How could I have organized a demonstration in a place where I hardly knew anyone? Let’s not forget that in those days the Iranian Diaspora would gather at any relevant event around the world to voice their demands. I have been accused of giving interviews to Persian speaking media abroad. I know for fact that there are no laws forbidding us from giving interviews?

Second part: What I say

History testifies that an artist’s mind is the analytical mind of his society. By learning about the culture and history of his country, by observing the events that occur in his surroundings, he sees, analyzes and presents issues of the day through his art form to the society.

How can anyone be accused of any crime because of his mind and what passes through the mind?

The assassination of ideas and the sterilizing of the artists of a society has only one result: killing the roots of art and creativity. Arresting my colleagues and I while shooting an unfinished film is nothing but an attack by those in power on all the artists of this land. It drives this crystal clear however sad message home: “You will repent if you don’t think like us”

I would like to remind the court of yet an other ironic fact about my imprisonment: the space given to Jafar Panahi’s festival awards in Tehran’s Museum of Cinema is much larger than his cell in prison.

All that said, despite all the injustice done to me, I, Jafar Panahi, declare once again that I am an Iranian. I am staying in my country and I like to work in my own country. I love my country, I have paid a price for this love too, and I am willing to pay again if necessary. I have yet another declaration to add to the first one. As shown in my films, I declare that I believe in the right of “the other” to be different, I believe in mutual understanding and respect, as well as in tolerance; the tolerance that forbids me from judgment and hatred. I don’t hate anybody, not even my interrogators.

I recognize my responsibilities towards the future generations that will inherit this country from us.

History is patient. Insignificant stories happen without even acknowledging their insignificance. I myself am worried about the future generations.

Our country is quite vulnerable; it is only through the guarantee of the state of law for all, regardless of any ethnic, religious or political consideration that we can avoid the very real danger of a chaotic and fatal future. I truly believe that tolerance represents the only realistic and honorable solution to this imminent danger.


Jafar Panahi

An Iranian filmmaker

Jafar Panahi’s film Offside

Jafar Panahi’s film “Offside” will be screened at the Paramount Theatre, Wellington on Sunday, 30 January at 6.15pm. Admission by koha, to offset the cost of the venue hire.


Assange, again

My policy on the Comments section to these columns is that (unless there is a compelling reason to intervene) I’ve had my say, and its over to anyone else. The comments on my recent Wikileaks columns – particularly by Tze Ming Mok – taught me a lot about the sexual misconduct allegations against Julian Assange, and I concede my initial reporting on them was inadequate. My only defence being that this section was part of a wide- ranging review of the debate on Wikileaks, and my research was spread too thinly as a result.

However, since some comments have now (a) accused me of being an apologist for Julian Assange and (b) likened me to an apologist for Roman Polanski, I’d like to respond. I do not, and have not, absolved or condemned Assange’s personal conduct. This is partly – and only partly – because Assange has not yet had an opportunity to fully reply to the allegations. That opportunity will not arise until (a) the extradition hearing on February 7-8, and (again, perhaps) when and if those charges are heard in a Swedish court. To forego final judgement in the meantime is not to be an apologist. In the second Wikileaks article, I repeated the gist of the accusations against Assange, and put them alongside the gist of his initial response in court to them. It was an attempt at balance, not to absolve the left’s golden boy of the hour.

What I’ve said all along is that Assange’s personal conduct shouldn’t determine, one way or the other, how the revelations by Wikileaks are judged. Meaning : the sexual misconduct charges shouldn’t be used as a revenge weapon on Wikileaks (or as a lever to get Assange back to the US to face espionage charges ) and – conversely – any admiration for Wikileaks shouldn’t predetermine how one regards the validity of the charges being brought against him by the Swedish prosecutor. That’s still my position.

The reality is that these charges have not yet been heard in court. If they are proven to be true, then Assange deserves to be punished, and regarded with disgust. Yet at this point, Assange has to be presumed innocent until proven guilty of the charges against him. The Guardian’s actions in releasing part of the Swedish prosecutor’s file against him was – I thought – an injustice. Again, the intention is not to absolve Assange, but to ensure that the charges are made fully – and are tested fully – in court. I found it interesting that one commenter portrayed me as part of a gendered tendency to minimize women’s experience and testimony in sexual complaints, while also denigrating me for linking to Bianca Jagger – whose supportive views on the Assange case were dismissed out of hand by this same commenter, because Jagger had disclosed the names of the complainants.

Well, plenty of other people also named them – including the US feminist Katha Pollitt who could hardly be accused of minimising women’s experience of sexual aggression. Pollitt explained her own original logic for disclosing the names, in the course of criticizing Naomi Wolf’s views on anonymity in rape cases:

I’m the first to admit that anonymity in this particular case is a close call at this point, since, although I’ve always supported anonymity for sex-crimes complainants, at the last minute I decided to name “Miss A” in my column two weeks ago. My thinking was that she had no real privacy left: her name is all over the Internet (some 113,000 Google hits); “Miss A” just looked so silly on the page. (I was also under the mistaken impression that, post-outing, the women had accepted a public role; in fact, they’ve been attacked so viciously, that Miss W has gone into hiding and Miss A has moved to the West Bank.) (Pollitt has now retracted the naming, online.)

In the piece to which I linked, Bianca Jagger raised what I still take to be a relevant point: that the original female Swedish prosecutor had surveyed the evidence against Assange and dismissed the rape charges. The relevance, in my original piece, being in the context of whether the case was likely to succeed in court – not whether the complaints were valid, nor whether the experience of the women concerned was harrowing. I still think the original dismissal will make it difficult for the prosecution case to succeed. The Swedes have bungled the case, and ill-served the women. Recognising that fact doesn’t bear on the validity of the complaints.

Right now, I don’t think anyone is in a strong position to judge Assange’s guilt until we have heard the full extradition hearing evidence on February 7-8, and (perhaps) the evidence in any subsequent court proceedings case in Sweden. It is possible – and in my opinion desirable – to defend the two women complainants’ right to be heard, while simultaneously being suspicious about whether the extradition process are also a tool to get Assange back to stand trial for espionage in the US – and/or to bankrupt Wikileaks in the attempt.

Personally, I do find it depressing that so much energy has been spent on Assange’s actions in bed and so relatively little on the morality exposed in the Wikileaks cables, which continues to validate the persecution, torture and death of hundreds of thousands of people. That doesn’t mean that one lacks compassion for the two complainants, or that anyone is giving Assange license to be a sexual predator. It means that there are revelations in Wikileaks than matter as much – or more – as what we’ve heard so far in the course of the soap opera swirling around Assange. Still, if some people prefer to focus on the Assange soap opera – because it rings a bell about injustices elsewhere – then that’s their prerogative.

The merits of this particular case aside, I think there is a wider problem in the way that we consume media events these days, in that issues commonly get reduced to the personalities (like ‘em, don’t like ‘em) of the main protagonists.

For the record, my position on Roman Polanski – who admitted and plea bargained away multiple charges with respect to drugging and sodomising a 13 year old girl – is that I agree with what Calvin Trillin wrote about the case in the Nation.

A youthful error?
Yes, perhaps.
But he’s been punished for this lapse
For decades exiled from LA-
He knows, as he wakes up each day,
He’ll miss the movers and the shakers.
He’ll never get to see the Lakers.
For just one old and small mischance,
He has to live in Paris, France.
He’s suffered slurs and other stuff.
Has he not suffered quite enough?
How can these people get so riled?
He only raped a single child.
Why make him into some Darth Vader
For sodomizing one eighth grader?
This man is brilliant, that’s for sure–
Authentically, a film auteur.
He gets awards that are his due.
He knows important people, too–
Important people just like us.
And we know how to make a fuss.
Celebrities would just be fools
To play by little people’s rules.
So Roman’s banner we unfurl.
He only raped one little girl.

In case this isn’t clear, Trillin was being sarcastic. In case this also needs to be spelled out, some differences between the Assange and the Polanski situation include: Assange denies the charges against him, while Polanski conceded he had given drugs to and engaged in sex with a 13 year old, and was willing to plea bargain on that basis – before skipping the country when he realized the plea bargain was NOT going to enable him to avoid jail. That’s quite a difference.


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