Regime paranoia

Ben Lewis reports on the campaign to free all political prisoners in Iran

Jafar Panahi, the Iranian film maker recently released after three months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, protests that at the moment he has little hope of making another film - all he can do is produce one in his head. However, he adds defiantly: “I will have to make a film - that is my life.”

“I started a hunger strike”, he says, “when one night they took me for questioning and the interrogators asked: ‘What is the name of your film?’ I thought they were referring to the film I was making when they arrested me in my house on March 1. So I replied: ‘That film isn’t finished yet, so it hasn’t got a name.’ They said: ‘No, no, we are asking about the film you are making in prison in your cell.’

“I said: ‘What film?’ These people really thought someone had smuggled in a camera and I was making a film in their jail! The truth is that I told a group of fellow prisoners that I have so far made five films and as a joke added: ‘And here I am making a film of myself’. The jail authorities must have heard this and thought that in my tiny cell I was making a film.”

Panahi finds strength in this thought: “All the pressures imposed by these interrogators are due to their imagination. It shows their fear of cinema. Here it is a crime even to think about making a film. Dreaming about a film is a crime!”

Panahi’s comments expose the Iranian regime’s extreme paranoia and fear of those who dare expose and lampoon its hypocrisy and double standards through art. So, although Panahi might now be released from prison, it is clear that he is far from being free, He is not only unable to make films: he cannot leave the country. In the past he has been removed from an aircraft just before it was due to take off.

Every mass movement throws up symbols. In many ways, Panahi has become such a symbol of the opposition to a regime hated by a largely young, radical population. His international prominence in the world of the arts - exemplified by the supportive stance of his fellow film makers at the recent Cannes festival - built up enormous pressure on the Iranian regime. That it was compelled to bow to such pressure and the efforts of solidarity activists across the world is a blow to its plans and a cause of much embarrassment. He is certainly eager to thank all those who called for his release: film directors, actors, theatre directors, artists, festival organisers, but also his friends and compatriots in Iran.

The memory of millions of people on the streets last June still haunts the regime. Although the green movement led by the ‘reformist’, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, has been exposed as utterly bereft of any strategy, the first anniversary of  last year’s explosion of anger against the fixing of the presidential elections will be a test for both sides. Nobody yet knows exactly how, but militant workers and youth in particular are likely to commemorate last year’s uprisings with protests and other actions.

It is improbable that the regime will fall tomorrow. But we are certainly witnessing the beginning of the end. It is struggle, the extent to which the Iranian masses can impose their radical democratic agenda on society, which will decide. Against this backdrop it is essential that the solidarity movement ups its work in financial, political and ideological support of the Iranian workers’, women’s, student and democratic movements.

Labour MPs John McDonnell and Katy Clark have now tabled an early day motion in parliament. The EDM welcomes Panahi’s release, whilst calling for the freeing of all political prisoners and for opposition to any sanctions or military aggression against Iran. We shall also use this EDM as the basis for a petition designed to raise the profile of political prisoners.