Nearly a year after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory led to wide-scale protests and a fierce government crackdown, members of Iran’s thriving and internationally acclaimed cultural scene have emerged as a driving force for the opposition.
Filmmakers, singers and rappers are each, in their own way, pushing for social and political changes, and many are paying the price of speaking out against a government that brooks little dissent. In response to films, songs and paintings inspired by the largest grass-roots opposition movement the country has seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government has arrested artists and markedly increased censorship.
Although some artists have left the country in order to escape restrictions, others remain in Iran and have turned their work into tools of activism. But the protest message has to be subtle or indirect, and even then the work is often produced secretly, using legal loopholes or underground distribution networks to evade the notice of authorities.
When world-renowned director Jafar Panahi decided to make a film about a family caught in the turmoil following last June’s election, he did not ask for official permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Instead the filmmaker turned his ninth-floor apartment into a film studio, with his wife cooking for the crew and friends playing the leading characters.
In March, security forces raided the home and arrested Panahi, the cast and his family.
“According to the law, nobody needs permits to film in their own house,” he said in an interview. “But the government does not obey its own rules.” Panahi was held for nearly three months, with top directors such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami calling for his release. State media reported that he had been making an “illegal movie.”
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