The Guardian

The Guardian May 30, 2001


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Land of the free

The film that won the Golden Lion (the grand prix) at the last Venice 
Film Festival was The Circle, a look at the position of women in Iran 
today. Its Iranian director, Jafar Panahi, was feted as an artist of global 
significance as befits the creator of a Venice Golden Lion winner.

The film was also sent to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the US 
at the beginning of this year where it won the Freedom of Expression Prize. 
Panahi himself did not attend.

The Award was sent to him together with material telling him that previous 
recipients had included luminaries such as Orson Welles. The Festival 
authorities termed The Circle "wonderful and daring".

Not long afterwards, in April, Panahi attended the Hong Kong Film Festival, 
where he was again treated with the respect due a Venice Festival winner. 
On April 15 he left Hong Kong aboard US carrier United Airlines en route to 
the Montevideo Film Festival. From there he was due to travel on to present 
his film at the Buenos Aires Film Festival.

The flight from Hong Kong to Montevideo is 30 hours with a two-hour stop-
over at New York's JFK Airport to change to the flight to Montevideo. That 
two-hour stop-over was to turn out to be a harrowing, Kafkaesque incident 
straight out of Orson Welles" film of The Trial.

At his request, the staff of both the Hong Kong and Montevideo Film 
Festivals had checked whether a transit visa was required for the two hours 
Panahi would be in JFK and been assured that one was not required.

One would not expect a visa to be needed in order to sit around an 
airport's international transit lounge while changing planes! Just to be on 
the safe side, when Panahi got to Hong Kong airport he checked with United 
Airlines himself about the need for a US visa and was given the same 
assurance.

It was a different story, however, when Panahi touched down at JFK. He was, 
after all, an IRANIAN, a word synonymous with "terrorist" in the minds of 
US police and Customs officials. As soon as Panahi produced his Iranian 
passport airport police were summoned. "The American police took me to an 
office and they asked for finger-printing and photography because of my 
nationality. I refused to do it and I showed them my invitations of the 
[Montevideo and Buenos Aires] Festivals."

The response of New York's finest was to threaten to put him in jail unless 
he agreed to be fingerprinted and have his mug-shot taken for the US 
government's files.

They also refused his requests for an interpreter and to make a phone call.

"Then, they chained me like medieval prisoners and put me in a police 
patrol [car] and took me to another part of the airport. There were many 
people, women and men from different countries. "They passed me to new 
police men [who] chained my feet and locked my chain to the others, all 
locked to a very dirty bench. For 10 hours, no questions and answers, I was 
forced to sit on that bench, pressed to the others. I could not move."

Panahi tried again to get the police to let him call someone in New York 
who would identify him, but they refused.

"They not only ignored my request but also the request of a boy from Sri 
Lanka who wanted to call his mom. Everybody was moved by the crying of the 
boy  people from Mexico, Peru, Eastern Europe, India, Pakistan, 
Bangladesh.

"I was thinking that every country has its own laws, but I simply could not 
understand these inhuman acts."

Eventually, after sitting all night on the bench chained to his fellow 
prisoners, Panahi was again approached by police demanding that he agree to 
be fingerprinted and photographed. He still refused.

After more than an hour, the police finally allowed him to make a phone 
call, to Dr Jamsheed Akrami, the Iranian film professor of New York's 
Columbia University. Two hours later the police came and accepted one of 
Panahi's personal photos (which he had offered all along).

Then they put Panahi back in chains and took him to a plane. But not the 
plane to Montevideo. They put him on a plane back to Hong Kong! The Circle was released in the US two days before Panahi had the misfortune to 
set foot on US soil. The film received praise from US critics.

Its Iranian director describes himself as "a filmmaker obsessed with social 
issues" who "naturally cannot be indifferent to racist, violent, insulting 
and inhuman acts in any place in the world".

>From the plane taking him to Hong Kong (presumably to stop him spreading 
Iranian propaganda in Latin America), Panahi saw the Statue of Liberty "and 
I unconsciously smiled" ... I just wanted to stand up and cry that I"m not 
a thief! I"m not a murderer! I"m not a drug dealer! I ... I am just an 
Iranian, a filmmaker.

"But how I could tell this, in what language? In Chinese,

Japanese or the mother tongues of those people from Mexico, Peru, Russia, 
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh ... or in the language of that young boy from 
Sri Lanka? Really, in what language?

"I had not slept for 16 hours and I had to spend another 15 hours on my way 
back to Hong Kong. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

But I could not. I could only see the images of those sleepless women and 
men who were still chained.

Back to index page