On the Key government’s lame response to Jafar Panahi

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The audience goes in to a support screening of Jafar Panahi’s film ‘Offside’ in Wellington on Sunday.

Down at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there’s a reason why they use terms like “the cocktail circuit’ and “in diplomatic circles.” It is because so much of the art and process of diplomacy is circular in form. It involves moving around the arc back to where you started, without taking any position of substance along the way – while trying to make inaction look like a meaningful gesture. Nine tenths of the time, it takes the force of external events to shift any diplomatic stance – mainly because MFAT appears to lack any internal moral dynamic of its own.

Late last week, Arts Minister Chris Finlayson produced a classic of the genre. Scoop had asked Finlayson for his response – as Arts Minister – to the jailing and silencing of the renowned Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi. Iran’s oppression of one of its greatest artists, you’d think, should not be a hard issue for a centre right government in New Zealand to confront. Last time I looked, Iran was not a very, very, very good friend of the Americans who – until the advent of Barack Obama – counted it as part of an axis of evil for a variety of sins. Those alleged sins included its support for Hamas in Gaza, and Hizbollah in Lebanon. Lets not even get started on Iran’s nuclear programme, or the threat that Iran poses to our very, very good friends in the House of Saud.

So, when the Iranian courts recently jailed Panahi and his colleague Mohammad Rasoulof for six years, and stopped Panahi for making films for 20 years, the criticism from other countries was succinct and forthright. France’s Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand called the court sentence a “pseudo-judgment” and added that the punishment was an “unacceptable attack” on Panahi’s freedom of expression. Therefore, France called for the release of the filmmaker.

Markus Loening, in charge of Germany’s human rights policy was even more pointed: “Sentencing Jafar Panahi to six years in jail is scandalous… It is simply unacceptable, and all the more disconcerting given that Jafar Panahi’s films have offered many people in recent years an insight into Iranian society and therefore contributed considerably to intercultural dialogue.” Therefore, Loening called on the authorities in Iran to recognize basic human rights and lift the sentence.

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It was against that backdrop that I asked Finlayson last week for comment on New Zealand’s position on Panahi – and whether he shared the concerns expressed by his French counterpart, and by the German government’s human rights advocate. Finlayson’s written reply, in full, was as follows:

Creative freedom is very important. It’s an adjunct of the right of freedom of expression. New Zealand shares concerns about the human rights situation in Iran, including restrictions on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. We work closely with like-minded countries, including Canada, Australia and the EU, to monitor the human rights situation in Iran. New Zealand’s Ambassador, Brian Sanders, has made representations to the Iranian Government on restrictions of human rights in Iran on a number of occasions. We also raise the human rights situation in Iran in statements at the United Nations, including cosponsoring the UNGA 3rd Committee Resolution on Iran’s Human Rights. We will continue to express our concern at restrictions on the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Iran, including the imprisonment of journalists, bloggers, and filmmakers such as Mr Panahi.

So….essentially, we don’t have anything particular to say about Panahi’s treatment because we already have such matters in hand, and any concerns we have will be expressed through existing channels. The response could hardly be weaker. Given the dog-whistle nature of diplomatic-speak, Finlayson’s comment will undoubtedly be taken by the Iranian Embassy in Wellington as nothing less than a greenlight to continue the persecution of Mr Panahi, since – unlike his European counterparts – Finlayson apparently believes Panahi’s case is not exceptional, nor his treatment particularly egregious. In fact, we appear to have an Arts Minister unable to tell the difference between an artist of Panahi’s stature, and journalists and bloggers.

Probably, the MFAT official who drafted Finlayson’s reply will be patting himself or herself on the back for producing something that sounds meaningful, while signaling inertia on the central point. Well, to echo the immortal words of the bloke in Spinal Tap, there is often a very thin line between cleverness and stupidity. The gathering international campaign on Panahi’s behalf will not be going away any time soon and Finlayson – by approaching the invitation to comment as if it were a hand grenade about to explode in his face – has missed a golden chance to put New Zealand on board with its European allies.

Not that our artistic community should give up entirely on their woefully timid Arts Minister just yet, In Canada, the writers organization PEN, the Directors Guild and Actors Union have co-signed a letter to Canada’s Foreign Minister asking him to make representations on Panahi’s behalf. A similar letter could well be put together here. Once he is well again, Sir Peter Jackson might be expected to endorse the Amnesty International campaign on Panahi’s behalf, given that colleagues such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon have already done so. That would offer a further opportunity for the government to step up to the plate.

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The creative freedom of filmmakers matters – even more than their capacity to generate revenue. Having paid Hollywood extra millions over The Hobbit for the economic benefits it will generate, perhaps the Key government can now lend its moral support – at no extra cost – to the human rights dimension of the industry as well. At the very least, the Panahi case could serve to revive the moribund cross-party chapter of Amnesty International, and thus provide a platform for MPs to advance human rights causes in Parliament. Such a platform will be needed, now that Keith Locke has announced his retirement at the next election.

Certainly, the 300 plus Wellingtonians who turned out to the screening last night of Panahi’s film Offside will be hoping for further action on his behalf. A further screening is being planned for Auckland. The intention is not to demonise Iran, or Iranians, or Islam. If anything, events in the Middle East – which have put the West’s client regime in Egypt on the ropes – are pointing to Iran’s rise and rise as a regional power, which will be at the expense of the Saudis. Thanks to George Bush, there is now a client Iranian regime in power in Iraq.

We seem to be at one of those turning points in history. It is almost as if the 20th century fabric of colonial fiefdoms and nations of convenience is being torn down, and replaced by modern forms of far older and greater civilizations. Turkey on one hand, Iran on the other : the Ottomans and the Persians, in new guise and without – one hopes – the same imperial ambitions. For that reason, the forces that represent openness, creativity and common humanity inside Iran need to be defended and strengthened. That is why Panahi’s fate – as the most prominent film maker in this most cinema-literate of countries – really matters. By the accidents of history and talent, he has given expression to Iran’s best instincts and capabilities.

There was a moment in Offside that made that point very powerfully. At the end of the film, the young women who have been arrested while trying to sneak into the soccer stadium (plus the soldiers who have captured them) get caught up in the street celebrations that followed Iran’s victory. Amid the fireworks and the dancing, the patriotic song that frames these happy events is one that dates from the 1930s and 1940s – before the Shah, before the Islamic Republic – but still widely known and popular in Iran.

Some forms of art, the song indicates, unite us and transcend the political slogans and programmes of the day. This is the sort of enduring, humane art that Jafar Panahi practices. It is a pity our Arts Minister did not take the chance to speak out and defend him.


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