From Venice to Tehran: Inside censorship through Jafar Panahi's films

“Taking off the chador is not enough, men must change,” Iranian director Jafar Panahi said on Sep. 8, 2000, after receiving the Golden Lion award at the 57th Venice Film Festival in Italy. His production, “The Circle,” shocked the public opinion as it put in the spotlight of the international film arena a movie that denounced the female condition in Middle Eastern countries. Even if today it is one of the most controversial topics in Italy and in many other parts of the world, 15 years ago, it was almost unthinkable to condemn the female condition in an Islamic country, especially if you were an unknown director living in the Middle East.

Jafar Panahi photo credit:

Jafar Panahi photo credit:

The plot is based on the stories of common women living in Panahi’s country, Iran, constantly escaping from something, or perhaps from everything. Nothing is known about their past, but their future is easily predictable. Throughout the movie, each of the protagonists is incriminated with dubious crimes, almost to symbolize the original sin they were marked with. The very first sequence in which a woman falls in despair after knowing her daughter gave life to a little girl is particularly emblematic.

This film had to be funded independently by Panahi in order to outlive the ferocious political censorship that subjugated his country. Nonetheless, his efforts were promptly championed by Mikado Film and Lumière & Co., two Italian production companies that resulted fundamental to the director’s very first success.

His sensitization campaign on the condition of women in Iran continued in 2006 with Offside, a movie inspired by the experience of Panahi’s own daughter. The film narrates the story of a group of young women that dress up as men to watch the Iranian team in the football World Cup Qualifiers held in 2006. On this occasion, Panahi ridiculed his country’s distorted socio-political system that obtruded patriotism in a witch-hunt that should find no place in the world. But for the first time he let out tepid optimism, filming young women and the militia celebrating together the qualification of their team in the World Cup, deposing the hope of change in future generations. Of course, the movie was shot in secrecy and banned by Iranian authorities, while it was being showcased in Europe where it was granted the Silver Bear award in the Berlin International Film Festival.

With the ascent to power of Ahmadinejad, Panahi who had always been a strong opponent of the regime, was arrested in 2010. The main accusation was that he was thought to be working on a documentary of protest. For this he was given six years of jail and a 20-year ban from leaving the country or producing films.

Nonetheless, thanks to the push of Italian Oscar-winner director Bernardo Bertolucci, the global film production community strongly mobilized for his freedom, which occurred a year later. The conviction turned into house arrest but the ban from producing films remained unvaried. In 2012, he received the Sakharov Award for the freedom of thought from the European Union.

The ultimate chapter of his emergence is celebrated through his masterpiece, Taxi Tehran, where the former represents the prison of the producer and the latter the prison of the population. Accompanied by random passengers on his taxi, and in the midst of reality and fiction, he narrates the absurdity of a country that, despite its attempt to westernization, is still lagging on issues like the freedom of speech, the emancipation of women and the death penalty.

On Feb. 14, Taxi Tehran won the Golden Bear, an award that its owner was not able to retrieve. At his place was his niece, a young girl who interpreted his alter ego in the movie and for that occasion, on the stage of the Berlinale Palast. As she held up the prize in tears, the audience applauded with sentiment.

The Italian film community was the first to truly understand the incommensurable value of his denunciation of a country that is moving in the opposite way of the West.     

If we consider the role of women for example, emancipation in Italy and in the West occurred in the 50s with the right to vote and equal salary. In Iran, due to a westernization that was forced by the Reza Shah Pahlavi during the 30s, 40s and 50s, women were much more emancipated than in Europe. This westernization though, brought much general discontent and culminated with the revolution of 1979, which made Iran an Islamic republic that saw the downfall of the female condition.

Paradoxically, in Iran, women were much more free in the 40s than they are now.

Amongst other things, Panahi wanted to show the world just that.