He never wanted to be an activist – the system forced him into it

Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi is one of the winners of the 2014 Prize for Freedom and Future of the Media, awarded by the Media Foundation of the Sparkasse Leipzig. Panahi is not allowed to give interviews, make films, write screenplays or leave the country since he was sentenced to six years imprisonment for propaganda against the government.


So Jafar Panahi’s representative in Germany Nooshafarin Doostri-Lübbe answers ECPMF’s questions.


Jafar Panahi has to live under restrictions imposed after his court case. What are those restrictions?


The sentence: six years imprisonment (still continues), six years forbidden to make films, six years forbidden to write screen plays, six years forbidden to do interviews, six years forbidden to travel abroad.


He was arrested in 2010 and spent three months in jail, fifteen days in solitary confinement in a cell that measured 1.80 x 2.80 square meters. The rest of the time with four people in a cell that measured 3 x 4 square meters.


Taxi TeheranHis award-winning film 'Taxi Tehran' was filmed in spite of those restrictions, as were his earlier recent films such as 'This is not a film'. How does this work?


After the judgment he suffered from depression. Some doctors from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) helped him. After he had recovered, he decided to carry on filming anyway, for the sake of his health. Since the sentence he made three films ‘This is not a film’ ‘Closed curtain’ and ‘Taxi Tehran’.


He made the second film whilst he was still suffering from depression. The answer to the question of how he made these films is of course – in secret. ‘This is not a film’ was made at home, ‘Closed curtain’ was filmed at his holiday home on the Caspian Sea and ‘Taxi Tehran’ in a taxi.


The cameras were hidden in handkerchief boxes and the roof of the taxi was replaced by a pane of glass, so that no artificial light was needed, which might have drawn attention to it. The editing was done at home and he found a studio where the sound could be added in secret.


What is daily life like for Mr Panahi and his family? Could you perhaps describe their living conditions?


He lives a normal life with his family. In their normal lives there are no restrictions. Of course they know that someone is listening to their phone calls and their emails are monitored. He watches a lot of films. When he has an idea for a new screenplay, he travels to the Caspian Sea in the north and write it there. He also attends certain theatre performances and private view parties of art exhibitions


What does it mean to Mr Panahi to receive the 2015 Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media from the Media Foundation Sparkasse Leipzig?


The fact that this prize is in remembrance of Autumn 1989 and the demonstrations of the Peaceful Revolution and an example of the defence of press freedom and freedom of expression, that of course shows him that there are parallels with the situation in Iran, and he is very thankful for that.


But he never wanted to be a political activist. He always sees himself as a social film-maker, a critical social film-maker. He has gone this way because the system forced him to do so.


How important is the support he receives from the international community and media freedom campaigners, and what more could be done to help him and others like him in Iran?


The support of the global community is very important and essential, it is above all the reason why he was set free after three months in jail and not arrested again, although the jail sentence still stands. He is thankful for this support and always says that because of it he does not feel that he has been left alone and abandoned. 


What sort of films are allowed to be shown in Iran and reviewed in the newspapers and other media?


The films that are made and shown in Iran are controlled in different stages. The monitoring is done by a ministry called ‘Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’. First the screenplay is controlled and then the finished film and then an extra authorisation must be given before it is shown in cinemas. In this authorisation process there are so-called ‘red lines’, for example:

  • nothing can be said or shown that is against the system
  • women must be veiled, and their characters must behave according to Islamic values
  • political and economic themes and violence are taboo and last but not least:
  • women and men are not allowed to touch each other


The answer to this question was also a theme of his last film ‘Taxi Tehran’.