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The High Price of Independent, Dissident Filmmaking in Iran

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After weeks of silence, the Iranian government has said it detained internationally acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi for making an anti-government film inside his house. His family completely denies the accusation.

Mr Panahi's films have been praised for their gritty, unforgiving view of modern day Iran. But this style of filmmaking inside a repressive regime comes at a high price; Mr Panahi has been under constant surveillance since his first film over twenty years ago. Last year he infuriated authorities by wearing a green neck scarf (the symbol of the opposition) at Montreal Film Festival, where he was head of the jury. He was banned from leaving the country in February to attend the Berlin Film Festival, and was arrested on March 1st at his residence in Tehran.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one exiled film reviewer told the Huffington Post that Jafar Panahi had previously been interrogated and instructed to keep silent, "or leave the country forever."

"There's a long history of interrogating the filmmakers in Iran. Sometimes they are warned about activities, and in other cases they are coerced to make a movie that advocates the agenda of the regime," he said.

The reviewer is in contact with the director's family who say that Mr Panahi is pale and ill and "under emotional pressure to sign what his interrogators dictate to him. He was treated respectfully they say, but they have confined him to a very small cell where he can hardly move."

Babak Payami, another acclaimed Iranian filmmaker was arrested and interrogated in Tehran in June 2003. Mr Payami told the Huffington Post that although Jafar Panahi has yet to be formally charged, "he is undergoing intense interrogation. It is obvious that the regime is making efforts to build a case against him to the best of their ability."

Mr Payami is one of hundreds of film professionals around the world determined to keep Jafar Panahi in the headlines. "All of my focus is to keep the public awareness of his arrest and detention without entering into a speculative scenario which may further complicate his situation. (We need) to make sure that there is no further cause provided to the regime to fabricate a case against him," he said of the delicate balancing act facing those working behind the scenes for Mr Panahi's release.

To esteemed Iranian intellectual Hamid Dabashi, the jailing of Jafar Panahi is another in the laundry list of human rights grievances against Tehran. Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia and a highly regarded cultural and film critic, he says that the level of outrage and condemnation must remain high to have any effect in swaying the regime.

"The louder the international outcry against this outrageous injustice the sooner he will be released," he told the Huffington Post. "The Islamic Republic is particularly wary of its international image - all the indications to the contrary notwithstanding."

Professor Dabashi hopes that the agitation on behalf Jafar Panahi will have a positive effect for other prisoners locked in the hell of Iranian jails. "This campaign would be particularly effective if it is combined with equal outrage against the incarceration of many other unnamed, anonymous, and forgotten people who have been arrested on bogus charges since the contested presidential election of June 2009."

Note: International film festivals and supporters are organizing a week of support for Jafar Panahi, by showing his films from 15 - 21 April at venues around the world. Already viewings are scheduled in over 10 countries. For details see the Free Jafar Panahi page on facebook and follow @freejafarpanahi on twitter.