Hollywood Unites for Iranian Filmmakers

June 9, 2011

Paul Haggis hands off Amnesty petition to Iran mission representative on June 8, 2011. © AI

World-renowned Iranian film director and peace activist, Jafar Panahi, and his artistic collaborator, Mohammad Rasoulof continue to face an uncertain future. Both men were charged with “propaganda against the state” in December, 2010, and sentenced to six years in jail.

Their lives have been in limbo for the past five months as each day carries with it the dreaded possibility of starting this lengthy period of incarceration. Panahi also received a 20-year ban on filmmaking, traveling abroad, and speaking with the media, which has been in effect since the sentencing.

Film, television and the media in Iran are regulated by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and its severe censorship laws. Panahi was convicted of collusion and “propaganda against the state” for making a film deemed to be against the government, and for his alleged involvement in inciting the protests following the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election.

Panahi is no stranger to governmental harassment and detainment. He was briefly arrested in July 2009 during a gathering at a cemetery in Tehran to mourn the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman apparently killed by Basij militia in a protest at the outcome of the presidential election. Upon his release he was prohibited from traveling abroad, including to the 2009 Berlin Film Festival and the 2010 Venice International Film Festival, in which he was invited to participate.

He was arrested again in March 2010 and sent to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for nearly three months, at which time he was subjected to degrading treatment and went on a nine-day hunger strike in protest. His detainment prevented him from accepting an invitation to be a judge at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

The charges against Panahi and Rasoulof are ludicrous. Their sentences are inhumane. These men have been deprived of their passion, stripped of their dignity, silenced and imprisoned by what can only be described as an Orwellian justice system.

Amnesty International joined forces with Academy Award-winning filmmaker and founder of Artists for Peace and Justice, Paul Haggis, in a campaign to demand that Panahi and Rasoulof’s sentences be overturned. The resulting petition was signed by over 20,000 people, including internationally celebrated filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, Harvey Weinstein, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Edward Zwick, Mosen Makhmalbaf, Michael Apted and Phillip Noyce, among countless others.

International film festivals such as Berlin, Venice and Cannes have shown their solidarity with Panahi and Rasoulof, as have organizations such as the Directors Guild of America and the LA Film Critics Association.

The freedom of thought and expression is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Iran is a signatory. Artists, journalists and activists are particularly attuned to the importance of these rights due to the nature of our work. I believe we have an obligation to use our freedom of expression to ensure those same rights exist for our counterparts, and indeed everyone across the world.

On June 8, 2011, I joined a delegation of Amnesty International luminaries lead by Haggis and Amnesty USA Executive Director Larry Cox, to deliver our petitions to the Iran Mission to the United Nations in New York.

Panahi and Rasoulof’s unfortunate plight has really struck a chord with people because it highlights the most fundamental violation in human rights: the right to think and speak freely.

While we campaign for their freedom we also hope to draw the world’s attention to the dire human rights situation in Iran today, including the clampdown on media and wrongful imprisonment of journalists, the persecution of minorities such as members of the Baha’i faith, the lack of equality between men and women before the law, the execution of juvenile offenders, the lack of due process, and the crackdown on human rights defenders such as prominent human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh and student activist Majid Tavakoli.

As Amnesty International celebrates its 50th year, and with 3 million members worldwide, we’ve seen how the countless letters written and campaigns waged on behalf of our prisoners of conscience have lead to a raised awareness and in many cases contributed to their eventual release. We hope the same will be true for Panahi and Rasoulof, that their sentences are overturned and their inalienable rights are fully recognized.

Nazanin Boniadi is a British-Iranian actress, activist and a Spokesperson for Amnesty International USA.