Critique, Free Political Prisoners, Human Rights

Forcing Arts into an Ideological Straitjacket

by guest author Samantha Lesly

When referring to the fight for freedom of expression in Iran, artists have always been ‘sitting ducks’ for governmental oppression. In fact, artists are censors’ primary concern because they are considered conduits for spreading ‘state propaganda’ through their work.

The Islamic Republic’s need to preserve power and its lack of care for internationally observed human rights bred a mixture of repressive laws that were enforced by forms of public persecution and physical power frequently used to besmirch and silence artists.

While the Iranian government continued without interference to stifle creative expression and strangulate cultural development, many Iranian artists like Shirin Neshat, Samira Makhmalbaf, Susan Taslimi, Parviz Sayyad and Reza Allamehzadeh  were forced into exile. Those who stayed were either forced into silence and therefore committed ‘professional’ suicide or were subject to vicious and continuous harassment.   

Growing international tensions between Western governments and Iranian authorities over their development of nuclear power and relentless violation of human rights have contributed to a state of political unrest which surprisingly sparked artistic creativity; unfortunately it also led to the enticement of brutal forces and the silencing of dissidents. The disproportionate and unjustified situation in Iran has reached an all-time peak, rendering it insufferable for artists to live peacefully in Iran today.

Pushing the boundaries was the culprit behind recent arrests of two Iranian filmmakers, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasulov, who were sentenced by the Iranian government to six years in prison for the crime of “conspiring against the ruling system.” Furthermore, a third Iranian film maker, Mohammad Nourizad is currently serving three and a half years in prison for allegedly spreading propaganda and insulting the country’s leaders.

Recognized as one of the most influential Iranian filmmakers winning an ever-increasing number of international awards, Panahi was forced into the unpredictable and violent hands of the Iranian government, which regards his films as unsuitable for addressing certain taboo subjects that the regime wishes to hide away from public eyes. A vanguard of world cinema, Iranian filmmaker Panahi’s career was brought to an unjustified halt, a forced ‘cinematic’ death sentence when government officials barred him from filmmaking and from leaving Iran for the next 20 years!

Panahi began his career in mid-1980 and a decade later emerged as a major talent in the Iranian new wave movement with the screening of The White BalloonAlthough his movies expose controversial societal issues that often defy views of censorship in Iran, a couple years later it was his film, Mirror that brought him to cinematic stardom, although it wasn’t until he came out with, The Circle, in 2000 when he was deemed as one of the most innovative revolutionists in Iranian cinema.

A rising star, gaining international popularity with each film, Panahi was a force to reckon with in the Iranian film industry. When Crimson Gold premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2003 and then with Offside’s portrayal of discrimination against women by banning them from entering a soccer stadium, he was considered a great filmmaker in the industry around the world.  

Until recently, Panahi was more fortunate than most Iranian filmmakers that were either forced to flee into exile or sent to prison for filmmaking. The corruption engrossing the regime in Iran has caught our attention. The vigilante violence and oppression by the regime exerted on spectators by shaping films to fit the mould of Islamic principles, stripping directors of their privileges of freedom, must end.

As the arts continue to test and push the boundaries, imprisonment, torture and mass executions will forever represent the battle for power and confinement of artistic expression that is regulated in Iran.

The international community must take effective measures required by international law to which Iran is signatory, and call for the freedom of these individuals and other innocent expressionists.

Support international laws and penalties against officials at the highest levels of government in Iran who systematically endorse abuse against human rights and freedom of expression. We should be publically denouncing them and action must be taken to defend the attack on the entire art and cultural community. 

The Iranian poet Hadi Khorsandi once said, ‘In Iran there is freedom of expression. It is freedom after expression that does not exist.’

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