Monday, March 5, 2012

Jafar Panahi

What would you do if you were banned from writing for 20 years?

Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker, was banned in December 2010 from writing screenplays, making and directing films, leaving Iran and giving interviews. When I saw Panahi's film "Offside," about girls who dress up as boys in order to sneak into an all-male soccer game, I did not know anything about the personal life of Jafar Panahi, who directed and co-wrote the film. I just knew that I had seen something amazing that allowed me to step out of my skin and be absorbed into another world. Films like Panahi’s compel audiences to acquire compassion. His style, which borders on documentary footage, gives viewers worldwide a look into his country and at the people who are more like us than the media would have us believe.The characters in Panahi’s films are motivated by the most basic wishes. By exposing the vulnerability of average people, Panahi removes the scary mask from our media-influenced perceptions.

I recently watched an interview with the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who said his impulse to write was similar to a beaver’s instinct to build dams. Destroy a dam and beavers will rebuild it overnight, but if you take away the timber so the beaver has nothing to chew on, its teeth will grow continuously and it will die.

Panahi has been imprisoned and has gone on hunger strikes to protest his mistreatment. A hunger strike is such a desperate act, but one I completely understand. When your basic needs are not met and when you refuse to live your life being bullied, whether you’re an artist or a political prisoner, or both, a logical solution is to starve yourself. “Hunger hurts, but starving works,” as Fiona Apple would say. It worked for suffragettes, and it gained recognition for Irish activists. Maybe similar protests could work for Iran.

The Iranian government is doing its people and the rest of the world a disservice by depriving us of more films by this great artist. An honest voice that enables sympathy and respect is essential for establishing more peaceful relations between our countries.

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