Iran, Hawaii, Freedom and Film Festivals

When Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested and thrown in a Tehran prison, some people in Hawaii may have recognized his name and known his work—his films have shown here through HIFF.

I’ve been writing a bit about freedom of the press here and the fear that drives authoritarian governments to suppress writing and publishing.  We live in a visual time, however, so filmmakers are just as likely to suffer for their speech. Example: Iranian director Jafar Panahi, just released today from Evin prison in Tehran. He’d been arrested on March 1, purportedly for making a film critical of the Iranian regime, though his family says that was not the subject of his current film.

Nevertheless—he’d attracted this attention from Iran’s government through films that were indeed very critical of the regime, including Crimson Gold (2003) and The Circle (2000). As it is, his government had already forbidden him to leave Iran to speak at film festivals.

Which gets me to why I followed this case so closely. When articles about Panahi’s arrest referenced Crimson Gold, I immediately recognized it as one of the most compelling films I had seen at the Hawaii International Film Festival in recent years. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of great films through HIFF, but Crimson Gold really stuck with me.

The main character is Hussein, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, now a pizza delivery man, riding his moped to Tehran’s rich and poor neighborhoods alike, becoming more and more alienated along the way. One sequence in particular I vividly remember: Hussein arrives with his pizzas at an apartment building. Upstairs, young couples are dancing to loud music at a party, no doubt the folks who ordered pizza. But police have surrounded the building. They detain Hussein for hours as they arrest, one by one, every beautiful young couple that leaves the apartment building, hauling them away in police vans. Only when the party breaks up do they let Hussein go back to his rounds.

Two reactions to that. 1) City life is city life, everywhere. Apartment buildings! Cell phones! Pizza delivery! 2) I can’t believe people anywhere have to live with that kind of fear. Arrested for dancing? And who takes upon himself to be the guy who arrests people for dancing? (Or filmmaking, for that matter.) What is the matter with these joyless scolds?

Panahi himself has never made it to Hawaii, but, in addition to Crimson Gold, two other films of his have, through HIFF, including The Circle, which shows how poorly women are treated by Iran’s regime, and The White Balloon.

Don’t know what I can do or say from Hawaii to affect any kind of change in Iran, or do anything meaningful for Panahi except to say: Watch his films, because some people don’t want you to. And HIFF, thanks for showing films like these.