Breaking Through the Ban: Thoughts on the Iranian Film Blogathon

So from now on, and for the next twenty years, I’m forced to be silent. I’m forced not to be able to see, I’m forced not to be able to think, I’m forced not to be able to make films.

I submit to the reality of the captivity and the captors. I will look for the manifestation of my dreams in your films, hoping to find in them what I have been deprived of.

– Open letter from imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, read at the opening ceremony of the Berlinale last month

Sign outside the Berlinale Palast during the 2011 Berlin Film Festival

On March 10, 2010, Jafar Panahi, the director of such acclaimed films as The Circle and Offside, was arrested on the suspicion that he was making a film critical of the current regime. His final sentence came later that December: arrested for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” Panahi, along with filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, were each given a 6-year prison sentence, as well as a 20-year ban on filmmaking. Additionally, they are not allowed to give interviews, travel, write, or in any way communicate with the outside world. Jafar Panahi is 50 years old, so this is, essentially, a life sentence for his art.

As a response to Jafar Panahi’s open letter, I decided to host an Iranian Film Blogathon on my site. It was a last-minute decision, borne out of a desire to ‘do something’, if only to create a space where people could share their thoughts about Iranian film, and hopefully increase awareness of these terrific artists. I promoted the Blogathon on Facebook and Twitter.  Suddenly, the links started pouring in.

Film critics participated, but there were others who took the occasion to check out Iranian films for the first time, and their responses were posted on my site as well. I was very pleased in the diversity of the Blogathon entries: the surprising points of view, the new-to-me films, and the wide scope of people’s passion for these various artists. A list of all of the links can be found at my site.

I’ve been a fan of Iranian cinema for quite some time, and have spent the last couple of years on my own site reviewing every Iranian film I can get my hands on. It was always my hope that it would push the people who read me to break out of their comfort zone a little bit, and check out some of these films. While Iran has a couple of world-renowned auteurs like Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui, there is so much else going on there.

Actress Hedye Tehrani

I have really enjoyed checking out what I call the second- and third-tier films. Some of them are the equivalent of Lifetime Television movies, or ABC Afterschool Specials. Some are three-hankie soap operas. There are comedies, and thrillers, and family dramas. You start to get to know the main actors, like Hedye Tehrani, Leila Hatami, Fariborz Arabnia, and Niki Karimi, to name a few.

It’s a great and vibrant film industry, even more so because of the censorship and persecution these artists so often face. In order to qualify for an Oscar, a film has to have been screened theatrically in its home country. Because so many of the films in Iran are banned outright and are never screened in Iran, their films often do not get the worldwide recognition they so deserve.

During the week of the Blogathon, I received two memorable emails. The first one was from a well-known critic, who simply said, “Do you honestly believe that what you are doing will help release Panahi from prison?” I guess it would have been better if I just hadn’t hosted the Blogathon, according to this person. Better to just do nothing.

However, it is the second email that really mattered. It was from a person named “Reza”, who said only that he was a film student in Iran, and: “Got through to your site, it is banned. thnk you!!!!”

So no, I do not think that hosting an Iranian Film Blogathon will help Jafar Panahi in any way. Nor do I think that it is a meaningless gesture. I wanted to do my small part in denying a theocratic regime its control over the films coming from its country. That’s all.

Those who choose the cynical “over-it” route will sneer, but I’m not writing for them anyway. I’m writing for those who have passion, interest, and curiosity about these filmmakers so little known in the rest of the world. And it is good to be reminded, in our globally connected age, that I am also writing for people like Reza, who huddled in his student union stealing a peek at a banned website, and who took the time to email me his thanks. That email alone made it all worth it.

This had happened to me before a couple years ago, in response to a review I wrote of Hemlock – a really sappy melodrama starring one of my favorite actresses, Hedye Tehrani.  I didn’t give it a rave, but I treated it with respect, and pointed out how good Tehrani is.  Another young man from Iran emailed me and said (I paraphrase), “Hedye Tehrani is our favorite actress here. I had to hack thru the firewall at my university to read your review. It is so good for us here to know what you think of us.”

This email blew me away.  In the past, Iranians knew what “we thought of them” only by what their state-controlled media would tell them.  To be able to reach out and connect directly – and for him to see someone from the U.S. be actively interested in his country’s films and culture – somehow moved this young man.

A blogger named Ted, who contributed a piece to the Blogathon on Kiarostami’s Shirin, wrote in his review: “No wonder dictatorships fear artists – religious dictatorships even more so – they would like to dictate each citizen’s inner content: their morals, their symbols.” Panahi wrote in his open letter: “The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for twenty years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in twenty years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking.” Great artists not only tap into their own dreams, but into the dreams of a populace, and give that populace a voice. That is the main reason they are often the first ones on the chopping block.

There is a great story about Offside, Panahi’s film about several Iranian girls who dress as boys in order to sneak into a soccer match, where women are prohibited. It was banned in Iran, but Panahi guesses that probably everyone in the country ended up seeing Offside due to bootleg DVDs as well as the Internet. In 2007, the year after Offside came out, there were protests outside Iranian soccer stadiums, across the country, with women in full chadors standing by the gates, holding up signs saying “WE DON’T WANT TO BE ‘OFFSIDE’.” Again, this was a film that the regime had censored.

If you think like a mullah, you can see why Panahi is so feared by them. But they have much more to fear from the desire – now matched with the ability – of millions of their own citizens to access media freely and connect directly to the rest of the world. As I wrote in the introduction to the Film Blogathon, dictatorships and tyrannical governments require privacy and closed societies in order to operate. That is becoming more and more difficult, as events in Egypt and elsewhere show us. You can even turn off the Internet, but people will find a way.


Sheila O’Malley writes about movies, books and actors at her site The Sheila Variations.

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