David Bordwell sums up the terrible news from the totalitarian state of Iran about the outrageous sentence given to director Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon," "The Circle," "Offside," etc.) after he was accused of conspiring to make an "anti-regime" film:
From Tehran comes the shocking news that Jafar Panahi, one of the finest of Iranian filmmakers, has been sentenced to six years in prison. The sentence also bans him from filmmaking for twenty years, forbids him to leave the country, and forbids him from giving interviews to the press, foreign or domestic. Panahi's collaborator Muhammad Rasoulof was also sentenced to six years in jail. [...]
The charges may be simply a pretext for silencing a prominent figure critical of current Iranian society. Panahi's films do not circulate legally there, and he is widely believed to be in sympathy with liberal forces. The government has sought to eradicate the most visible of these factions, the Green Party. Even Islamic clerics have been swept up in the crackdown. A parallel case to Panahi's is the attack on Mohammad Taqi Khalaji, a dissident cleric. Last January he was arrested and his computer and papers were seized. He too was incarcerated in Evin prison before being released on bail. Yet he was not formally charged with anything. His personal papers, including his passport, were not returned to him.
You can get some grim satisfaction for knowing that movies still matter in some parts of the world. Films have the power to shock bureaucrats and threaten authoritarian regimes. Instead of being simply "assets" or "content" to be extruded across platforms and shoved through release windows, cinema is in some places taken seriously as political critique.
But, Bordwell adds:
Lest we Americans savor our superior virtue, consider this: Four months before 9/11, Panahi was traveling between Hong Kong and Argentina and stopped over in New York. He had been told he did not need a transit visa, but he was detained by American authorities at JFK Airport for lacking one. [...]
[Read Panahi's account of his treatment in the U.S. at Senses of Cinema here.]
We are in the season in which critics are likely to use the word "courage" casually, as in "Natalie Portman gives a courageous performance in 'Black Swan.'" The ongoing struggle of Panahi and thousands of his fellow Iranians remind us what real courage, in the world outside the movie theatre, looks like.
Be sure to read DB's entire piece, which includes a brief history of Panahi's career.