Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi goes on hunger strike


World-renowned director Jafar Panahi has been in prison for several months despite the Supreme Court overturning the verdict against him. He went on a hunger strike in protest.

Director Jafar Panahi has been in prison since July 2022

“I expressly state that in protest against my taking of hostages on the morning of Bahman 12 (February 1) and the illegal and inhumane behavior of the judicial and security apparatus,” Panahi wrote in a statement posted to their Instagram accounts by the filmmaker's wife, Tahereh Saeedi, and his son, Panah Panahi, on Wednesday night.

< p>“I will refuse to eat or drink anything or take any medication until I am released,” continued the 62-year-old. “Until perhaps my lifeless body is freed from prison. “

The multi-award-winning filmmaker is being held in the notorious Evin prison on the northern outskirts of Tehran. It is known for its harsh prison conditions. Panahi was arrested in a Tehran court in July 2022 when he wanted to find out about the case of two other arrested film directors: Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad. The judiciary then ruled that he had to serve a six-year prison sentence that had already been imposed in 2010 for “propaganda against the system”, which had been suspended after two months in prison of the presidential elections that resulted in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second term. 

The verdict was due to be overturned on October 15, 2022, as the Supreme Court said the ten-year statute of limitations had expired, but Panahi remained in custody. In the meantime, the case has been forwarded to the Court of Appeal, as Panahi's attorney Saleh Nikbakht explained. His decision is still pending.

A thorn in the side of the regime: the directors Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Alahmad (from left)

On January 7th, Panahi's colleague Mohammad Rasoulof  released. His lawyer told the AFP news agency that he was granted a two-week leave of absence for health reasons.

Films despite being banned from leaving the country and working

Jafar Panahi has been banned from leaving Iran since 2010. He is also no longer allowed to make films or even write screenplays. Despite this, the director has produced other films that have received numerous awards at the major film festivals. Panahi's film “Taxi Tehran”, for example, received the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival. His last, the semi-autobiographical film “Khers Nist (No Bears)”, won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Biennale last September. 

At the 2011 Berlinale, the chair with the inscription “Jafar Panahi” remained empty. The director, who was also a member of the jury for the competition, was in prison in Iran at the time

The director's release was demanded at the festival there. In a letter from prison, Panahi thanked them for their support of imprisoned artists. At the same time, he made it clear that repressions were still the order of the day in Iran.

Protest against tightening of hijab laws 

Numerous protests are currently shaking the country. It all started when the Iranian regime tightened hijab laws for women last year. Among those who were arrested by the Iranian moral police for allegedly wearing a headgear that was not worn correctly was the 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish descent Jina Mahsa Amini. Her case attracted particular attention, as it marked the start of mass protests in Iran: According to eyewitnesses, who are mentioned in a report by the human rights organization Amnesty International, she was beaten during transport to Vozara prison and a few hours after her arrest to to have fallen into a coma. Amini died three days later (09/16/2022) in a Tehran hospital Jafar Panahi's “Taxi Tehran”: The filmmaker himself is behind the wheel and talks to different passengers

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), more than 500 protesters have been killed and nearly 20,000 people arrested since September 17 in the crackdown.

A thorn for the Iranian authorities in the eye

Panahi's son Panah believes his father was imprisoned as a warning to others. “They want to silence the other artists by imprisoning Jafar,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “Generally, this regime tries to imprison one mastermind from every sector who cares about Iran and the protests, to serve as a deterrent to others to shut up.”

Jafar Panahi has been a thorn in the side of the Iranian authorities since his feature film debut “The White Balloon” won the “Camera d'Or” (Golden Camera) at Cannes in 1995. Iran's clergy tried to withdraw the film when it was selected for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. They barred Panahi from attending the US Sundance Film Festival to promote the film. To date, “The White Balloon” is Panahi's first and last film to be screened in Iranian cinemas.

Panahi's way of making films

Panahi's work is celebrated in the rest of the world. Since being banned from his profession in 2010, the filmmaker has proven several times that he still manages to continue working. He uses simple equipment for his productions and sometimes uses non-professional actors. The results are sent abroad on memory sticks. 

The 2015 film “Taxi Tehran” exemplifies this subversive way of filmmaking. It was shot entirely in a car – more specifically, a taxi driving through the streets of Tehran taking various passengers to their destinations brings. Some recognize the chauffeur – it's Panahi himself. His conversation with the passengers is recorded by a camera installed on the dashboard.

Panahi shot No Bears, which the New York Times named one of the top ten films of 2022, in a remote village on the border with Turkey. “It's not easy to make a film, but making it secretly is really difficult, especially in Iran where a totalitarian government controls the country so tightly and spies everywhere,” Iranian film scholar and documentary maker Jamsheed Akrami told the Agency AP. “As a filmmaker, Panahi is second to none.”

An Iranian Voice of Conscience

Despite being banned from working: Panahi found ways to make more films

While Panahi went about his work despite being banned from making films and speaking to the media, he also did not shy away from standing up for freedom of expression and especially women's rights.

Being oscillating between fiction and documentary 2018 film 'Three Faces' offers a glimpse into the life of an outlaw former actress. The strip won Best Screenplay at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

Panahi also addressed women's rights in Iran

Panahi acted almost prophetically when he denounced the oppression of women in Iran in earlier films such as “The Circle”. That seems like a foreshadowing of the women-led protests that are roiling Iran today. “Panahi exposes the country's everyday sexism here. He shows what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated society,” wrote one reviewer of his 2000 film with his young niece about the moral police and censorship.

But in the end, Panahi is about the universal oppression that men also suffer from – also outside of Iran. Referring to the limited opportunities for women in his film The Circle, Panahi said in an interview that while men are less constrained, they are still limited in their ability to act: “Men live in the same restrictive circles as women, but maybe they have theirs Circle a larger radius than women.”

Article adapted from English by Stefan Dege.