Jailed Iranian filmmakers' works can still be seen — here

Jafar Panahi (pictured) and Mohammad Rasoulof were convicted of the intention to commit crimes against the Islamic Republic. Jafar Panahi (pictured) and Mohammad Rasoulof were convicted of the intention to commit crimes against the Islamic Republic. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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Anyone who attends any of the films at this year’s Boston Festival of Films From Iran, beginning Friday at the Museum of Fine Arts, needs to hold burning in their mind two men who won’t be making films for at least the next several years: directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. They are currently in prison for their art and for the danger it represents — the threat that mere movies holds toward a regime terrified of expression it can’t control or comprehend.

People who don’t attend the festival should probably keep Panahi and Rasoulof in mind, too. By that I mean the kind of American moviegoers who don’t bother with foreign-language films, or who look at a country such as Iran and see an unvarying tide of fanaticism. Ask yourself: Would you be willing to make a film such as Panahi’s “Crimson Gold’’ or “The Circle,’’ stories that movingly focus on individual characters yet paint an unrelenting picture of a culture in clampdown? Or a startling allegory like Rasoulof’s “Iron Island,’’ about a society of squatters living on a slowly sinking oil tanker? Would you dare to point a camera if you knew your family might end up in jail?

The facts deserve a recap. During the “Green Revolution’’ of summer 2009 that followed Iran’s disputed presidential election, Panahi was arrested while attending the funeral of Neda Agha-Soltan, a peaceful protester whose murder was captured on videotape and seen by a global audience. No charges were specified; Panahi was released but banned from leaving the country. On March 1, 2010, Panahi and Rasoulof were arrested again and taken with family and friends to Tehran’s Evin Prison. An international outcry and petitions from dozens of filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and the Coen brothers, followed.

Last month, both men were convicted of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.’’ Essentially, they’re guilty of being filmmakers and of having a point of view. Both received six years in prison, but Panahi’s sentence carries an especially cruel codicil: He has been banned from making movies for 20 years.

Or writing screenplays, or traveling to festivals, or speaking with national or international media. He has been disappeared, a fate familiar to artists in Soviet Russia and other repressive reigns. The government has accused Panahi of working on a film about the Green Revolution, but the director’s wife maintains the footage he was shooting “had nothing to do with the regime.’’

Amnesty International is circulating a petition and more Hollywood names have signed on. While petitions can’t hurt, only a naive moviegoer would believe the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cares what Sean Penn thinks. Nor should the persecution of Panahi and Rasoulof obscure the thousands of Iranians imprisoned, tortured, and executed in the aftermath of 2009’s protests. Short of urging further economic sanctions, though, what can you do?

At the very least, you can watch the movies — and talk about them, and pass them around. Rasoulof’s “The White Meadows’’ — edited by Panahi — closes the film festival at the MFA on Jan. 29, and Panahi’s own films are available on DVD. Start with his most recent feature, “Offside’’ (2006), a neo-realist comedy about Iranian girls trying to sneak into a soccer stadium to watch the home team play a World Cup-qualifying match — an event their gender is barred from. Or 1998’s “The Mirror,’’ a plain-spoken metadrama about a little girl (Mina Mohammad Khani) who tries to find her way home after school only to defiantly kick back against the city, the grown-ups, even the film she’s in. In Panahi’s movies, rebellion takes the simplest and most surprising forms.

Neither “Offside’’ nor “The Mirror’’ can be legally watched in Iran. Both can be rented from Netflix. Even if you’ve never tried an Iranian film, give them a go — they’re slices of life that are far from Hollywood yet very close to the heart of things. Art dies when it’s not seen. In Panahi and Rasoulof’s case, the artists are equally in danger.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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