Play for Mortal Stakes: Four Filmmakers in China and Iran Face Prison for Their Work

As American filmmakers, we never have to ask ourselves if we’re willing to sacrifice our artistic integrity for fear of imprisonment, or if the political views that underlie our films are worth our liberty.

Here in the United States, it’s downright hard to offend people. In a free society, there are fewer consequences for being outspoken. But since the stakes are lower, if we make films that sit comfortably in relation to those stakes, we make forgettable films.

This does not have to be the case. Robert Frost famously said that the work (poetry, for him) must be “play for mortal stakes.” It’s difficult to see one’s work as both an opportunity for play and as something with life or death ramifications. But achieving that seemingly paradoxical frame of mind is crucial for great art. As Americans, it is easy for us to be flippant and ironical—to treat our work as play. It seems impossible to convince ourselves that it matters, that we’d risk our lives for it. But the Tibetan filmmaker, Dhondup Wangchen, and the Iranian directors Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and Mohammed Rasoulof, have had no choice but to risk their lives and liberty when making films. Surely what seems impossible for them is thinking of their work as play, finding a way to revel in the artistic process with so much at stake. But that is exactly what they do. As American filmmakers, we could learn a lot from their lives and their work.

Reliable information about what goes on within the borders of Iran and China is difficult to come by. So be advised that we cannot guarantee 100 percent factual accuracy in what follows. This is, of course, exactly what these regimes prefer: The harder it is for us to gather accurate information, the harder it is to raise awareness of the plights of persecuted filmmakers.
Dhondup WangchenDhondup Wangchen

In late 2007, with the Beijing Olympics fast approaching, Dhondup Wangchen, a 33-year-old Tibetan businessman, decided to buy a small camera and become a filmmaker. With the help of his friend, Golog Jigme, a Buddhist monk, he set out to interview ordinary Tibetans (farmers, yak herders, students) about their views of the Olympic Games, the exile of the Dalai Lama, and the repression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese government.

Wangchen begins his film, “Leaving Fear Behind,” by proclaiming that though he is not educated, he has opinions he would like to share. He speaks into the camera with a matte white wall behind him. The lighting is poor. His speech feels halting and unrehearsed. His film is about the common people of Tibet, and he is one of them.

The people interviewed are plain-spoken, like Wangchen. Many of them are illiterate. But, like Wangchen, they are all extremely brave. “One of the main difficulties we faced in making this film,” he says, “was coming face to face with the people and not being able to guarantee their safety.” He offered to obscure their faces, but many said they absolutely had to have their faces seen, that it wasn’t worth speaking otherwise, that if their message reached the Dalai Lama, they would not regret it, even if they had to die. The Tibetans, by and large, cannot bring themselves to support the Olympic Games, a symbol of peace and freedom, when they have neither freedom nor peace themselves. One old man says, concerning the Dalai Lama’s exile, “The situation is hopeless. I feel exhausted. It is as though I were walking alone, with no destination, endlessly.” But there are moments of strange joy, as well. In a dim hut, covered in hides and with a wild sheepskin hat, an old woman laughs crazily, saying, “If the Dalai Lama were to return, I’d be so happy I’d be prepared to jump into the river and die.”

There is also a very muted joy that Wangchen takes in his shots of the landscape, the mountains, the blue sky, the herds of sheep, the simple, steadfast backdrops always behind the Tibetan people. And there is something slightly crafty about the way Wangchen includes the making of his film in his film. He shows us footage of the recorded tapes. He talks about the pressures of getting people to consent. He makes us co-conspirators in his dangerous enterprise.

A few days after filming completed, Wangchen and his assistant were arrested. Fortunately, he had already relocated his parents, wife and children to India and the tapes of all 108 interviews were smuggled outside the country. Wangchen was held for several days at a hotel. He was beaten and deprived of food and water. He spent the next year in the Xining City No. 1 Detention Center without any communication with the outside world. When he was finally allowed to speak with his lawyer, he revealed that he’d been tortured while in custody and had contracted Hepatitis B. Wangchen’s lawyer was barred from court and he was given a public defender. After his secret trial, he was sentenced to six years in prison for “subversion of state power.” In 2010, he was transferred from the Detention Center to a labor camp where his physical condition has deteriorated under the harsh living and working conditions. “Leaving Fear Behind” was screened in secret for foreign reporters in Beijing. Here in America, it is viewable free on YouTube. Last March, Tibetan activists protested in Times Square, calling on the Chinese government to release Wangchen. As far as we know, he has yet to receive medical treatment for his Hepatitis B.
Jafar PanahiJafar Panahi

A thumb-drive smuggled in a cake, a group of middle-aged men wearing matching green scarfs, a custodian and a few brave filmmakers—these are the ingredients that should make up an absurdist screenplay. Instead, they’re the elements of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s struggle to uncensor himself, promote peace in his country, and release his latest work, This Is Not a Film.

Whoever makes the biopic of Jafar Panahi’s life will have to include a scene from his childhood, in which he sneaks into the movie theater in order to re-enact the stories for his sisters’ entertainment, even after he’s punished by his father. Panahi began his career making films centered on children, slyly including critiques of Iranian society that went largely unnoticed by censors. Red flags were raised with his first more overtly political film, The Circle, which was banned, as was his next film, Crimson Gold. The government preemptively shut down Offside before shooting began, and again before its release, simply because Panahi’s name was attached to it. Through it all, the director shrewdly dodged attempts to keep him from filmmaking; Offside found a wide audience both in and outside Iran through the circulation of pirated DVDs.

In March 2010, Panahi, his wife, daughter, and a dozen friends were arrested on unspecified charges. Panahi was held until May, apparently for his alleged intention to make a film about the protests following Ahmadinejad’s contested election. He was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films (and giving interviews) for 20 years.

It was while awaiting news of his lawyer’s appeals to this sentence that This Is Not A Film was made. Where a less brave man might have fallen into despair, Panahi never forgot his craft. What Magritte does with his pipe, playfully asking what it means to represent, and thereby asking what art is, Panahi does with this project. Under house arrest, he was still able to ask the hard questions: What is a film? What drives us to make movies? Why do we care?

In a country where the government owns and censors all television and film production, it is up to the people to produce their work by whatever means are accessible. More often than not, this means shooting on cell phones and distributing for free online. This ideology and aesthetic are embraced in This Is Not A Film, parts of which are shot on an iPhone.

This Is Not A Film is an investigation of what it means to be a filmmaker who cannot make films, acting as something of a survey of his career to date. He surreptitiously invites his co-conspirator/director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to his apartment to “see what can be done.” There is an element of real-time mundanity to illustrate his house arrest—we see him eating, we see him making tea, watching the news, washing vegetables, feeding his daughter’s iguana, Igi (which must become a character, for who else is there?). For Mirtahmasb, he reads the screenplay he’d planned to film before his arrest—because, of course, “reading” a screenplay was not mentioned in the ban. He maps out the set with yellow tape because: “If I sit here [at the table] it will bore everyone.” Despite an implicit expectation that the reading of a screenplay can indeed be tedious, he somehow does not bore us.

The preceding tale is more claustrophobic than his own house arrest. In his almost manic telling of a story of a girl contemplating suicide in her prison of a room, he makes clear the disparity between her economic situation and his. (The taped-out section that marks her bedroom is only a corner of his Turkish rug.) He creates space as he goes on, cutting out sections of tape to make doorways and stairs. In this telling, the question must be asked: If we can explain a film, what purpose does it have? What is film?

Though This Is Not A Film rejects most conventional elements of what we expect out of cinema, there is conflict. And structure. There is even an inciting incident. Panahi calls up his lawyer and we listen in on their conversation about whether she has heard back about the appeal—the stakes are laid out. Two-thirds of the way through the movie, we get our “reminder” when Panahi speaks to the lawyer again. Still there is no word, and little hope. The missing element is, of course, resolution.

In the background, throughout the film, is the blasting of fireworks and sirens in celebration of the New Year. At one point, a news broadcast discourages the use of fireworks because they have no religious purpose. Panahi is sitting on his couch with his iguana, inundated by media—the TV is on, the phone is ringing, the computer is lighting up his face, the camera is rolling—and yet he has no access to the truth.
Panahi, lonesome in his house and lonesome without his art, pleads with Mirtahmasb to stay and continue working on whatever the hell it is they’re working on. Before Mirtahmasb leaves his camera with Panahi, using a lighter as a tripod, he says twice, “It matters that the camera stays on.”

Desperate to continue filming, he follows the custodian, collecting trash from other floors. When the young man realizes Panahi is shooting with his iPhone, he asks why he would use that when there’s a nice camera in the kitchen. Laughing, he pulls out his own iPhone and says, “I have one, too,” again driving home the idea that filmmaking can be as accessible an art form as reaching into your pocket.
Panahi continues to follow the man out to the street. Within the night-bustle of fire and crowds, there is a sense of foreboding. The custodian reminds Panahi that he could get in trouble if he’s seen with the camera. In this effort to excavate himself from under the restrictions placed by his government, he risks further imprisonment. But it is worth the risk; as we’ve learned, in Iran, cinema is born in the streets.

The worldwide film community (notably Sean Penn and Martin Scorsese) have acted boldly on Panahi’s behalf. This fall he was awarded the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament for his work combating intolerance and oppression. Yet it is unclear exactly what situation Panahi faces at this time. In writing this article, it became apparent how much we take for granted that a simple web search should provide accurate and easy-to-find dates and names. But current information about Iran’s penal system and Panahi’s situation is hard to come by, even with so much concern focused on him. Evidently, his six-year jail sentence was appealed successfully, or not enforced, but he is not permitted to leave the country. It is unclear whether his 20-year ban from filmmaking was lifted. Likely, it still stands.
Mojtaba MirtahmasbMojtaba Mirtahmasb

Though internationally known for his collaboration with Jafar Panahi on This Is Not a Film Mojtaba Mirtahmasb is an important Iranian director in his own right. He began his career making documentary films about traditional Iranian handicrafts. He was somewhat aligned with the establishment, as his films were then financed by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB).
During his time in the Army, he directed war-related shorts that could be seen as the beginning of his journey to becoming a critical voice in Iranian cinema. In 2004, he released Seday-e Dovom (Back Vocals) and Saaz-e Mokhalef (Off Beat). Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, female solo singers have been prohibited from recording or performing. Back Vocals focuses on female singers who struggle to bend the rules in order to be heard. Off Beat documents an online battle of the bands, featuring many of Tehran’s underground rock groups, which was organized in order to circumvent Iran’s prohibition on public rock concerts.

His most notable film is Lady of the Roses (2008), about Shahindokht Sanati, a woman famous for fighting against the opium trade in pre-revolutionary Iran by replanting poppy fields with roses.
By 2011, he was being watched by the Iranian government as much as Panahi. After co-directing This Is Not a Film, Mirtahmasb was detained while attempting to travel to Toronto for the premier of their collaboration. He spent three months in prison and was eventually released on a $200,000 bail. His fate remains unclear.
Mohammad RasoulofMohammed Rasoulof

Mohammed Rasoulof is another Iranian filmmaker, best known for White Meadows and Goodbye. White Meadows, a surreal, dreamlike work, was a “clandestine, underground film,” Rasoulof says. Possibly this is the dark headspace of Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Goodbye is about a woman attempting to leave Iran, and was made during Rasoulof’s own confinement to the country.

In 2010, he was arrested along with Jafar Panahi. Like Panahi, he was banned from making films; his official crime: “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” His sentence was eventually reduced from six years to one year.

The response to his imprisonment is particularly interesting. In January of 2011, the Cine Foundation International launched a video-software program called White Meadows designed to facilitate and encourage people to record short video statements about Panahi and Rasoulof. The program has several features designed to help protect the liberty of those who wish to contribute, including an escape button for quick exit (if, for example, an Iranian government official is looking over your shoulder), and soon, a voice distortion effect. Visitors are encouraged not only to speak about Panahi and Rasoulof, but to use the software to report any and all human rights abuses to the world.
Back Home

The case of Mark Basseley Youssef (AKA Nakoula Basseley Nakoula), the man behind “The Innocence of Muslims”—the 14-minute YouTube film that incited protests in the Muslim world and led certain US officials to blame it for the attack on the Benghazi Embassy—has raised some worries here in the US about free speech. Youssef was jailed in 2010 for bank fraud and upon his release, he was given five years probation in which he was expressly forbidden to use aliases. His recent arrest came only days after the Embassy siege in Benghazi and led pundits on the far right (who claimed he was being used as a scapegoat to deflect concerns about a terrorist attack) to claim that he was being punished for his film, in violation of the first amendment. In reality, Youssef was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for violating the terms of his probation. The LA Times reported that according to Kenneth P. White, a former federal prosecutor, “Everything that has happened to him is really consistent with the way the probation office might act if he were doing a film about kittens.” The consensus now seems to be that, at most, Youssef’s “film” drew him to the attention of the authorities and sped his case through an otherwise bogged down parole system. Thankfully, we are a long way from imprisoning filmmakers for their films. But Youssef’s case should remind us to stay watchful. The US government did attempt to convince Google to remove “The Innocence of Muslims” from YouTube. Google refused. MM

 

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