BOB GARFIELD: The Iranian State is currently silencing one of its leading lights in cinema. Director Jafar Panahi was hit with a six-year jail sentence for what the Islamic Republic has called propaganda against the state.
What’s more, the 51-year-old Panahi is banned from making films for the next 20 years. He’s not in jail yet, but while he waits in legal limbo he’s made what he calls “an effort.” It’s a film titled, This is Not a Film. Photographed in his apartment on a digital camera and an iPhone, This is Not a Film chronicles one day in the director’s life, a day in which he tries to reenact the screenplay the government has barred him from filming. At one point, he gets down on his hands and knees in his den, using masking tape to create a blueprint of his unmade movie “Heroine’s Bedroom” so that he can act out a scene.
JAFAR PANAHI [INTERPRETER]: I’ll start from here. And the lines that I draw, they’re the walls of the girl’s room.
BOB GARFIELD: Panahi performs a read of the scene for his friend holding the camera.
INTERPRETER FOR FRIEND: What is it? Why don’t you continue?
JAFAR PANAHI [INTERPRETER]: [PAUSES] In a moment. [PAUSE]
We hear the end of the film. Maryam thinks for a moment. Although she’s upset… If we can tell a film, then why make a film?
BOB GARFIELD: Panahi’s This is Not a Film has been smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive baked inside a cake. U.S. audiences will get a chance to see it in theaters this week.
Panahi, obviously, isn’t able to speak with us but Jamsheed Akrami can. He’s a professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, who studied censorship in Iranian film. Jamsheed, welcome to On the Media.
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: We hear his lawyer tell him that he is most likely to go to jail for some portion of his six-year term and that perhaps they will scale back the 20-year ban on filmmaking but not eradicate it altogether. And his response, as a resistor, is to essentially poke his finger in the eye of the government. Is he in more danger as a result of this, or has he kind of inoculated himself against further oppression?
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: The government is basically not happy about the fact that he made this movie quite illegally, but I like your use of the word “inoculated.” Yeah, maybe he is because he’s so well known across the world right now, and his plight has been so well publicized that the government is really afraid of him. They’re afraid to send him back to jail.
BOB GARFIELD: Even had he been permitted to shoot his film, the restrictions for filmmakers in Iran are onerous, to say the least. Give me an idea of what an Iranian filmmaker is up against.
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: Making a movie in Iran is really something close to a miracle, given all the Draconian censorship codes. Any sort of physical contacts between men and women is banned in Iran. Forget about any sort of romantic stories, contact between a father and a daughter or the mother to embrace her son, you can’t have scenes of that nature either.
Also, another example would be how it’s the Iranian Islamic law that women have to cover their hair, but in their homes women, they don’t cover their hair. But when it comes to the Iranian movie, they still have to cover their [LAUGHS] hair in the privacy of their homes.
And if you noticed, in this movie his wife and daughter are outside of the house, and that’s a rather curious choice because if this is a day in the life of a filmmaker, you would want to see his family. He doesn’t show them at home because if they were to be home they had to appear with exposed hair, and that would not have been possible. So he is trying to avoid [LAUGHS] committing a lie, a fabrication, basically.
The fact that Panahi keeps his wife, daughter and mother out of the film in itself is an act of protest against the women’s conditions in Iran.
BOB GARFIELD: Panahi is something of a genius for playing the hand that is dealt him. You mentioned that his wife and daughter don’t appear in the film. We learn that they’re out delivering New Year’s gifts to his mother. The filming does take place during New Year’s, and outside there are these enormous fireworks displays.
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: The day happens to be what we call Chaharshanbe Suri, which has been roughly translated as Fireworks Wednesday. This is a tradition that has been frowned upon and actually dismissed by the Islamic regime, but embraced by the majority of Iranians as a day of rage and resistance against the regime. Panahi has chosen this particular day to celebrate the people’s defiance of the regime.
BOB GARFIELD: So Panahi shot this film, pressing all of the buttons that he – was certain would most infuriate the regime. What’s happened since the film escaped from Iran?
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: Panahi has been basically kept in limbo by the Islamic government. They’re not sending him back to jail at this time, fearing the repeat of the international outcry that he’s initial imprisonment caused a couple of years ago.
But, at the same time, they have kept him from working as a filmmaker. He is preoccupied nowadays, as I’m sure a lot of other Iranians are, with the chances of Asghar Farhadi’s –
BOB GARFIELD: The director, whose film is up for Best Foreign Film in the - in the Oscars.
[OVERLAP/BOTH AT ONCE]
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: Yes, A Separation, winning an Oscar or [LAUGHS] maybe even two. But he’s deeply frustrated that he cannot make his own movies. You know, this is a situation that the Islamic government should be really ashamed of, to be putting one of their best filmmakers in the prime of his career in such an unpleasant situation and try to completely silence his creativity.
BOB GARFIELD: Jamsheed, thank you so much.
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: Oh, you’re welcome, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Iranian documentarian and scholar Jamsheed Akrami teaches at William Paterson University. His forthcoming documentary about censorship in Iranian film is called Cinema of Discontent.