Artistic freedom in Iran: "As if it were raining cement on us"

The Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasulov have been given harsh sentences. An interview with their colleague, film director Rafi Pitts who now lives in Paris.

"So far no dictatorship has succeeded in preventing artists from expressing themselves." Bild: reuters

taz: Mr. Pitts, did you expect the sentences handed down to your colleagues Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasulov to be so harsh?

Rafi Pitts: I expected them to be harsh on Panahi and Rasulov, but I didn’t expect a sentence of six years in prison and a twenty-year ban on practicing their profession. But theses days, no one can say anymore what is going to happen in Iran. Anything is possible. Never in the history of cinema have filmmakers been sentenced without having actually made a film but merely because they intended to make one.

Their lawyers have until the end of January to lodge an appeal against the sentence. What do you think their prospects are?

That is why I wrote the open letter to Mr. Ahmadinejad and called on the international film industry to stage a two-hour strike on February 11, the anniversary of our revolution. To draw attention, to stop the escalation of this madness. Perhaps it will make them see reason.

Do you really believe that?

Whether I like it or not many people in my country voted for Ahmadinejad. They no longer have a majority, the majority voted for the Green Movement in 2009. Nevertheless, we have to live together. So, a president rules in my country who is protected by revolutionary guards.

Both are continually invoking the revolution and freedom in the name of the revolution. If that means for them thirty-two years after the revolution that they have the freedom to lock up any artist or journalist who asks questions, then I as an artist must reflect this attitude.

More than 80 percent of today’s population weren’t even born at the time of the revolution. Talk of the revolution sounds very anachronistic.

That’s true. But that means it is high time to question the government about its goals and its legitimacy—and to do so in its own language. Of course the French press would use a different kind of vocabulary with Sarkozy to the one I have chosen for my letter to Ahmadinejad. But in my country everything still centers around the revolution of 1979. And they try to pretend there have been no new developments, as if the mass protests following the elections had never happened, as if no one had died.

Is that why the regime reacts so sensitively when this construction of reality is criticized?

Yes. It criminalizes us as antirevolutionaries. Therefore we must ask: What exactly do you mean by “in the name of the revolution”? They must define what revolution means for them so that we can choose to be for or against the laws they represent.

Have you received any reaction?

No.

Do you think Ahmadinejad will react?

He ought to, because 70 percent of Iranians today are younger than thirty. They don’t know what the revolution stands for. Hussein Moussavi himself was a revolutionary and leader of the Green Movement, which used to be legal and is now suddenly illegal.

Refusing to define things is a great technique for exercising power. Why should Ahmadinejad weaken himself by laying down principles to which he is then obliged to adhere?

I don’t know whether that would weaken him. I just know that the only thing I can do is to confront him with these questions: If I who am living in Paris for well-known reasons don’t say anything, how can I expect anyone in Tehran to say anything? So the least I can do is to write an open letter and have it published by the Western press, thus increasing the chances that it will reach Ahmadinejad. And anyway it is about more than just my colleagues in Iran.

Other countries might use this kind of pre-emptive censorship as a precedent?

Of course they might. If the film industry doesn’t manage to show a gesture of solidarity now, then in five or ten years time the next government might decide to sentence people not on the basis of deeds but simply of intentions.

What kind of conditions are Panahi und Rasulov likely to be held under?

Nobody knows at the moment. But you can see how tired Panahi looks after three months in custody, and imagine how he might look after six years.

Have your colleagues in Tehran already reacted to the sentence?

The strongest reaction so far has come from the Association of Iranian Filmmakers. They have called on all film workers in the West to boycott the forthcoming Fajr film festival in Tehran. For filmmakers in Iran that means making a big sacrifice, because this festival is an important forum for showing their films.

You have called on people all over the world to down tools for two hours.

The Iranians will participate in the strike too, I’m quite certain about that. But it is important for solidarity to be shown outside Iran and also outside the film industry. I know I’m asking a lot. But if it helps to save Panahi und Rasulov, then a two-hour strike is maybe not too much to ask. During those two hours, some people may start to think about what it would mean not to be allowed to work for twenty years.

What options do filmmakers currently have in Iran? Can they still work at all?

Of course they can. So far no dictatorship has succeeded in preventing artists from expressing themselves. In one way or other. In Iran everyone is now going underground, or they are already working underground.

So for filmmakers there is no longer any gray area?

That takes us back to where we started. Nobody knows any more what is legal and what is illegal. Before the riots in 2009 we made films that were either censored if the regime disliked them or else were not allowed to be shown in Iran. Now Panahi and Rasulov have been sentenced while still shooting a film and they have been accused of not having had a script. Once the madness has gone that far, the only thing left is to go underground.

In his defense speech to the court Panahi pointed out that that the space in which his international prizes are exhibited in the Tehran film museum is larger than his cell. Have his trophies now been removed?

Not as far as I know. The regime is still basking in his fame and yet it destroys his existence because of an idea he had for a film.

Many people interpret the brutality of the regime as a sign of weakness.

Killing is always a sign of weakness. Progress can only be made when things are allowed to be discussed. A state of unambiguousness always means stagnation. But in Iran we aren’t stagnating, we are sliding further and further backwards.

Are the regime’s days numbered?

In purely mathematical terms, yes, because the regime has completely distanced itself from the country’s youth. In that respect change is inevitable. The question is simply: Will it involve bloodshed and how much longer will it take? That was one of the reasons why I made The Hunter. If you take away a person’s ability to express him- or herself it’s only a question of time before he or she explodes.

What about the conflict within the government? Through Wikileaks we have learned that the president was allegedly slapped in the face by one of the revolutionary guards.

I strongly suspect that many people up there are dissatisfied with Ahmadinejad. Moussavi was also part of the government. But that’s all I can say about that.

Many people say the government is simply afraid that images of violence and of people full of hope for change will go round the world.

That’s probably true. But it’s really crazy, because we’ve all seen those images already. Sometimes I really think the government no longer knows what is happening in the country. Because everyone in Iran knows that a huge number of people took to the streets and that some of them died. Whether in the country or in the city, everyone knows. Perhaps the government should look on the Internet more often.

Subsidies for bread and gasoline were recently abolished. People say that this move will cost the government support among the people. So why did it do this?

If I were cynical I would say because they want us to go out on the streets and protest against them. Even just two years ago I would never have dreamed that I would write a letter to the president. I’m not a particularly political person, but nor have I ever been so furious. Because things were moving forwards, admittedly in small steps and always within the limits of censorship, but something was happening. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable that I would have got permission to shoot a film like The Hunter. After the 1979 revolution cinema was more or less dead. And then an industry developed again, Abbas Kirostami made Taste of Cherry; since then we’ve been able to talk about suicide. Revolutions don’t happen overnight, and things can’t be repaired overnight either. But there had been a cautious opening. And now it is as if cement had rained down on us and destroyed everything. What do we have to lose? What else will they give us that we could lose?

Why are so many Iranians in Iran still so optimistic?

Pessimists can’t survive in Iran. My generation is a “no future” generation. Because of the economic situation, high unemployment, sanctions that only affect the general population, it is really difficult even just to get by. You always live one day at a time. No one knows what will have happened by the evening. That creates a certain intensity, a certain vitality, and optimism as well.

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