Jafar Panahi and the Power of Cinema

L to R: Richard Peña, Negar Mottahedeh, Hadi Ghaemi, and Hamid Dabashi speaking in New York on Mar. 2, 2011. (Asia Society New York)

NEW YORK, March 2, 2011 - In the context of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's recent sentence—a six-year jail term and twenty-year ban on making films—for his association with the reformist Green Movement, a panel of experts in Iranian cinema and human rights gathered at Asia Society New York to discuss the director's artistic significance and the power of cinema, as part of Asia Society's film series A Tribute to Iranian Filmmaker Jafar Panahi.

Duke University Associate Professor of Literature Negar Mottahedeh placed Panahi in the wider context of filmmaking in Iran, where filmmakers face stringent restrictions in their efforts to depict Iranian reality.

Hadi Ghaemi  of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran explained that Panahi received his stiff sentence because "through his filmmaking, through his art, he was bearing witness. [The Iranian authorities] did not want a witness." Ghaemi went on to add that by delivering such a sentence, the Iranian government made an example of Panahi to all those who want to express their discontent in Iran.

The panel was quick to situate Panahi's plight against the ongoing democratic uprisings in the greater Middle East. Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi emphasized, "It is imperative for you [the audience] to have not negative but absolutely positive, life-affirming image of what's happening in Iran or the region in general. People have been dreaming of these uprisings in their poetry, their art, their literature, their political, social, and philosophical thinking and writing ... In every country ... in order to understand what's happening, avoid cliché and start looking at their cinema."

Dabashi's view was supported by Richard Peña, program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who offered some hope for how cinema can bring about greater understanding.

"Considering how important this region is to America, Americans remain largely ignorant of it," Peña said. "I think obviously if they would see these films ... they would certainly understand the extraordinary complexity of this region."