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Gordon Campbell on Iran’s increasing paranoia

Gordon Campbell on Iran’s increasing paranoia, and its attempts to unplug from the Web

A few months ago, Scoop ran several articles about the Iranian film director Jafar Panahi, who was banned last November from making films for 20 years and sentenced to six years in jail. With the help of Bill Gosden of the NZ Film International Film Festival and Amnesty NZ, Scoop organised a free screening in January of Panahi’s film Offside, which some 400 people attended in Wellington.

To update the situation: Panahi is currently being detained at home on bail, while he awaits the result of his appeal against his sentence. In the interim, most people would have chosen to keep their heads down. Instead – and despite the ban on him making films – Panahi has participated in a film made about his detention, as a protest against state censorship. The film is called This Is Not A Film, with all ironies intended. It was smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, and screened at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Indie Wire has a really good description/review of the film here:

From the first scene, Panahi acknowledges that he will almost certainly go to prison and that none of his peers can help out. “If they make the slightest move, they’ll be banned as well,” he sighs. The only man capable of doing something about Panahi’s conditions is the man himself….

Arranging his living room as though it were a movie set, Panahi reads aloud the screenplay for a project rejected by governments officials, in which a young girl is banned from attending university by her traditionalist parents. After explaining the opening scene for several minutes, Panahi eventually grows exasperated. “If we can tell a film,” he says, “why can’t we make a film?”

The movie is also a record of its making: “Listen, Jafar,” Mirtahmasb says. “What matters is that this is documented. It matters that these cameras stay on.” So they do: As the day winds down, Panahi settles onto his couch and watches TV. He flips through reports on the March tsunami in Japan and settles on a newscast about the president’s declaration that fireworks are illegal. To underscore the irony, Panahi grabs his iPhone and films the fireworks outside his window.

The movie continues to expand its reach. A young college student living in the building drops by to take out Panahi’s trash and the director follows him into the elevator to ask him about his career plans. (“All of a sudden, I’ve jumped into your film,” the guy says.) It’s hardly a meandering climax: Panahi displays Iran’s potential future, implying the persistence of individualism under oppressive circumstances. This explains Panahi’s inner resolve as well. He ends on an eerie note: “Please don’t come outside,” the college kid says to Panahi. “They’ll see your camera.” But the director doesn’t listen, and this project’s existence shows he continues to ignore the safest bet.

All this rather puts in perspective the difficulty of making films (and resisting censorship) in less totalitarian societies. A few months ago, I clumsily suggested that our Minister of the Arts should make an extra effort on behalf of Panahi, above and beyond the usual diplomatic protests about the lack of free speech and political action in Iran.

That wasn’t meant to minimise the fate of ordinary protesters and activists in Iran – far from it. It was because headline cases like Panahi are being punished by the Iranian authorities precisely in order that their fate will deter everyone else. Which means, conversely, that if Panahi can be successfully defended by the force of international opinion and protest, the space for political action will be expanded for everyone else. Basic rights of freedom of expression are at stake, as well as an artistic legacy. Together with his mentor Abbas Kiorastami, Panahi has headed what has been one of the most vibrant film cultures in the world. For fear of intimidation and censorship, many of his film-making peers have fled the country. Panahi and his family have stayed.

Unfortunately, his case is unfolding against a backdrop of galloping state paranoia – which is being expressed in a general crackdown on the arts and the role of the Internet. In January, a production in Teheran of Ibsen’s classic play Hedda Gabler was suspended and its director arrested in the midst of a power struggle over the role of the theatre between the government’s arch conservatives and anti-conservatives.

Earlier this week, Iran also announced plans to set up its own national Web to be run in opposition and in parallel (during the period of transition at least) with the Internet.

An official from the Communication Ministry informed an Iranian news agency that soon 60% of all the Iranian homes and businesses would be connected to the new internal network and in two years’ time, the network would cover the entire country.

The unusual idea is part of a series of measures aimed at eliminating what the current regime considers to be a major threat: the online invasion of Western ideas. Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others high official have stated in recent speeches that this new conflict is a „soft war”.

Iran is also planning to launch its own operating system in the next couple of months, according to news published by the local media last week. Authorities stated that the new network would work in parallel with the regular web – banks, ministries and large companies would still have access to WWW but the Iranian Internet would eventually replace the global network both in Iran and in other Muslim countries.

Iran may be a paranoid state, but even paranoids have genuine enemies. The Stuxnet computer worm developed by the US and Israel and reportedly deployed against Iran’s nuclear programme, has been another factor in Iran’s attempt to build a beachhead against such Web attacks in future. Unfortunately then for Panahi, he is being seen by the mullahs in Teheran as just one pawn in a wider array of attacks by Western morality and technology, against a regime that sees itself encircled by enemies intent on sapping its moral, religious and military defences.


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