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Crimson green

Banned director Jafar Panahi on Iran's vicious circle
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 29, 2009

A few weeks before he arrived in Montreal in August to serve as president of the jury at the Festival des Films du Monde, Jafar Panahi was in a Tehran jail. When he and members of his family paid their respects at the gravesite of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman killed during the recent demonstrations against the disputed presidential election, they were arrested by police. Panahi was released the same day. Undaunted, in Montreal he continued to show his support for the protesters. At the festival's opening ceremony, as he and his fellow jurors were announced and made their way on stage, they sported long green scarves — the color of the Iranian resistance.

Panahi gets away with this in part because he is a world-famous filmmaker in a country where such things still matter. His The Circle won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2000; his Offside won the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2006. Both films were banned in Iran (which in recent weeks has become more noted for nuclear-weapons testing than for filmmaking); after Offside, morever, Panahi was forbidden to make further movies. His auteur stature, however, has allowed him to speak his mind. So far.

Tell me about the green scarves.
I brought them here from Tehran and asked the jury if they would wear them, and they accepted. The color doesn't stand for any person or party. It's a symbol of hope. It's a symbol of resistance to the government — resistance and basic rights. For four years, I haven't had the right to make a movie. I felt that since they no longer let me make movies, I should to go to film festivals and there express my feelings.

What happened when you were arrested?
I was arrested at 11 o'clock. Word went out to the cinema world about what happened to me. At around half past seven, they released me. It shows the power of the cinema. The people who are in power have engaged in the worst possible behavior. But with tiny cell phones, much evidence has been documented and transmitted to the outside world. Although filmmakers like myself can't make movies, now we have thousands of amateur filmmakers in the streets of Tehran who can make movies that transfigure reality with their cell phones.

One of the recurrent symbols in your films is the circle. Do you think the history of Iran has been circular, with the revolutionaries of 30 years ago now repressing a revolution themselves?
Exactly. But now it's more difficult, because now it's an ideological government. A dictatorial government is better than a government with religious ideology, which is even more tyrannical. But I am still optimistic. In the summer before the revolution [against the shah], if you asked someone if there might be a revolution, an optimistic person would say, maybe in a century. Yet six months later, it happened. Any time I fear that closed circle which is in the movie The Circle, I think of another movie I made, Offside, where there is shown a small hope of breaking free.

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