Who’s afraid of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof?


“Cinema Without Borders is establishing an Open Page for Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof as an on-going, action-oriented commentary about the jailing of the filmmakers in Iran. The Page will remain open until Mr. Panahi and Rasoulof are freed, and free to make movies of their choice.

Film critic Vera Mijojlic is our first contributor.
Cinema Without Borders invites readers, filmmakers, critics, supporters, and friends of international cinema to submit their comments and keep this Page active until Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof are freed”


First the physical jail for the body, then post-incarceration ban on the mind, heart and soul; wow. Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof are dangerous men alright. We got that. Compared to their predicament, Solzhenitsyn’s gulag years do not even compare.  After all Mr. Solzhenytsin was able to continue with his subversive creative activities. The two Iranian filmmakers are apparently  bigger threat to their homeland of more than 70 million people. Over there they seem to be trembling with fear at the sight of them. No small feat for a country of considerable military and spiritual might. So maybe we should investigate this affair a little bit deeper and find out who else might be so afraid that no other path was open to Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof but the one-way to jail, both here on Earth and within the more eternal realms of the future as well.

Both were found guilty of treason, disloyalty to their country, bent on telling stories for which they must have known would land them in trouble. To add insult to injury neither filmmaker wanted to flee to a nice country like say France and seek artistic asylum for their tortured souls. Instead they opted to stay put in Iran where they called to task its very solemn government. They made their government look bad, and expected clemency! What insolence on the part of Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof. They should have known that one doesn’t fool around with people who don’t have any sense of humor. Iranian leaders are somber, serious men, busy with policing a massive populace of restive compatriots. They have already made a mistake in letting a whiff of democracy blow through their heretofore closely controlled elections which led to a thing called hope in the person of an opposition candidate whom the two filmmakers may, for all we know, have supported or, insolent as they are, encouraged with their movies. Ah, the magic of moviemaking!

Democracy, as we have all learned during the past decade, can be a real nuisance. It is understandable that Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof saw no big advantage in fleeing to the West ruled by the leaders of the free world whose claim to fame rests in the ruins of their own populace through ingenious economic instead of crude police measures. Sensitive as artists tend to be, Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof probably saw no advantage in washing ashore west of their homeland as poor refugees hoping to make a beer commercial to sustain themselves.

No, they chose to stay in their country and defy its rulers.

And rulers like rulers eventually had enough. The united voice of these two filmmakers was one opposition voice too many. The more I think about it, the more I understand why Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof had to go to jail for all our sakes. Times are tough, and we have enough on our hands to deal with in their part of the world. Who has the time to continue messing with this case where no Western politician stands to gain anything?

Indeed, who? Who is left to keep Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof in our collective consciousness?

One is immediately thinking of the media. Yes, of course, the media! Surely, the media will do that. There are infinitely more news outlets today than ever before. But there is also a vast amount of news to digest. And as a consequence, whether we like it or not, we have grown numb, deaf, and indifferent because we have seen it all already, every single detail of human existence many times over. We have been given front row seats in the theater where punishing light was shed on every pitiful world leader, rebel, criminal, sociopath or genius alike. Everyone finally got their 15 minutes of fame, and quickly found out that without upping the ante forever, every single day, with another piece of news, whether real or engineered….if we stop broadcasting …..well, we then fall into the abyss of obscurity and non-existence. Our 15-minute lifetime span is up. Next!

And where do Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof feature in all this? This may sound harsh to you (after all, the men are in jail), but their time in our news cycle has been up for about a week now. Meanwhile fresh stories from around the world keep pouring in, the New Year according to the Gregorian calendar has just started, and one can always count on North Korea to provide the most entertaining and media-friendly content. Plus, too many calls for justice and petitions from human and animal rights groups and concerned citizens over the past media-heavy decade have had the same age-old effect on us as the shepherd who cried wolf too many times had on the villagers …. when it finally mattered, no one came.

What is one to do when the wish for information abundance comes true, as it has in our lifetime? Who knew that once we ‘got the knowledge’ about everything under the sun we’d grow weak, complacent, drained of attention and filled mostly with curiosity about the shiny objects of media desires, like indigenous people once were of glass beads, and rendered just as powerless and as easily manipulated?

For all I know Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof might have been jailed to serve another purpose, as chips in a future political bargain that we are not yet privy to between the “West” and the “East”. I have never met either one and who knows, both might be an unpleasant sort. Artists tend to be difficult people. But I asked myself, what if someone I knew, someone talented and in the prime of his or her creative life, someone whose future films I want to see, someone who can give me something to look forward to beyond the trashy headlines, what if someone like that got jailed? I’d be mad as hell!!!!

Perhaps, let’s face it, you’d be too – if it was your friend?

Do we wait for someone else to raise hell? And who, may I ask, is that someone else, precisely?

The quickly congealing media silence is cementing Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof further and further away. If they are being robbed of their future films, then I am robbed of experiencing them. If they do not get another chance at freedom, then I am poorer for one too. They did not murder anyone, or commit a crime for which they should be kept away from us. They made movies, problematic for the rulers of their country perhaps, but that’s the rulers’ problem, not theirs. We are free to critique their craft of film making, but we overstep our boundaries when we silence people for their thoughts, and in this case even future thoughts. Thoughts and stories and movies that are yet to come.

It is all too easy to blame everything on politicians and autocratic governments. Where are we in all this? To whom exactly do we transfer our responsibility when we grow tired of a news story? Ultimately, what is the meaning of ‘speaking up’ in the global entertainment circus?

The question we are faced with is not just the jailing of two filmmakers, but also the media death of the story. The encroaching silence that comes with diminishing media coverage, leading to indifference and ultimately forgetting.

In John Schlesinger’s “Marathon Man” Laurence Olivier famously kept asking Dustin Hoffman, “Is it safe?”

I guess it never really is, as Mr. Panahi and Mr. Rasoulof have already found out. There is no such thing as safety, so get over it. I am not afraid of whatever it is that I am supposed to be afraid of in a world so thoroughly infused with fear.  Are you?

JAFAR PANAHI, b. 1960, is one of the leading directors of the Iranian New Wave. He won praise and international acclaim with his films “The White Balloon”, “Crimson Gold” and “Offside” among others. He was in and out of jail in 2010 until December, when he was convicted of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran” and of undermining its national security. He was sent to jail for 6 years, and banned from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews or leaving the country for the next 20 years after that. If his sentence stands, he will be 76 years old when he gets another chance at making movies.

MOHAMMAD RASOULOF, b. 1972,  gained international recognition with his first feature-length docudrama “Gogooman” (2002). His other films include multiple award-winner “Iron Island”, as well as “The White Meadows”, and “Head Wind”, a documentary about the restrictions currently imposed in Iran on using satellites and internet. He was also in and out of jail throughout 2010 and in December sentenced and sent to jail under the same terms as Jafar Panahi.

To comment, add your name to the Cinema Without Borders “Open Page for Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof”, Please email us at info@cinemawithoutborders.com and for post your comments in the same article in CWB BLOGS.


About Author

Vera Mijojlic

Vera Mijojlic is the founder and director of the South East European Film Festival in Los Angeles. Formerly a film critic in ex-Yugoslavia, she also works as a programming and marketing consultant for art house films in the U.S.

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