09/05/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Orwa Nyrabia's Disappearance Highlights Culture Wars In Syria, Iran

To get his latest film into the hands of Cannes Film Festival organizers in time for its 2011 screening, the acclaimed Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi had to smuggle it out of the country on a USB thumb drive, hidden inside a cake.

This was the only way he could get his work out of Iran, where he is currently trapped under house arrest, awaiting a prison sentence for alleged "collusion" against the regime.

What came out of the cake was "This is Not a Film," an extremely low-budget piece of cinema -- part documentary, part narrative -- which takes place entirely within Panahi's home. It was shot using digital video and an iPhone over five days. The title, Panahi's collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb told The New York Times, is meant to evoke "the loneliness of a filmmaker who is banned from working."

Though Iran had no "official" entry at Cannes, Panahi's non-film made a splash there, and has since screened at festivals and in theaters around the world. To show solidarity for the absent filmmaker, many producers leave an empty seat in the theater for Panahi -- their cinematic equivalent of wearing a patch on a jersey or a ribbon on a lapel.

Almost every international film organization has released statements of support for Panahi, but aside from strongly-worded arguments, the film community can feel helpless in situations like these. In a separate episode last week, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) released its own statement of concern for a filmmaker from an entirely different country, but one targeting artists just as harshly.

Orwa Nyrabia, a prominent filmmaker and actor from Syria, is believed to have been apprehended by authorities as he prepared to board a flight to Cairo. His family has not heard from him since Thursday, Aug. 23, when Egyptian Airlines reported that the filmmaker never boarded his scheduled flight.

Nyrabia founded the Damascus Dox Box documentary film festival and was part of an independent film movement in war-torn Syria.

TIFF, which begins in Toronto this week, said in a statement that it was “extremely concerned by his arrest – film-makers must be allowed to express themselves without fear of reprisal.”

The Cannes Film Festival and other prominent French film organizations also released a joint statement, saying “Orwa Nyrabia belongs to a young generation of Syrian cineastes and cinephiles, who love cinema from around the world and freedom. His arrest worries and outrages us."

Martin Scorsese pronounced his support for Nyrabia as well, in a statement re-posted by Film Forum, the Sundance Film Festival's Facebook page, and many others. "The international film community must remain vigilant, and shine a light on every injustice perpetrated against our fellow artists," Scorsese said. "We need to maintain pressure to ensure the immediate release of Orwa Nyrabia."

Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-American film scholar and professor at Columbia University, stressed that international publicity can make a difference for filmmakers like Nyrabia and Panahi. Dabashi said that Panahi has likely avoided prison due to international pressure around the issue. Instead of holding him inside a jail cell, the Iranian government is keeping Panahi "in limbo," where he gets to stay home with his family but cannot officially make any films or leave the country.

A double-edged sword for a hungry artist, Dabashi suggested.

"It's really a bizarre, Kafka-esque situation we are in. He cannot make a film, but he did make a film. It's a cat and mouse between the republic and the minister of foreign affairs," he said. "They don't carpet bomb; they terrorize judiciously. They terrorize only to intimidate people."

Though Panahi's situation in Iran is difficult enough, the current state of cultural affairs in Syria is especially dangerous for artists right now. Nyrabia is related to another documentary filmmaker, Oussama Mohammad, who is currently in exile and was close friends with Omar Amiralay, a prominent Syrian filmmaker who died last year. Al-Arabiya recently interviewed Nyrabia about the mysterious death of yet another Syrian filmmaker, Bassel Chehade, who was reportedly "training citizen journalists" to document various civilian attacks.

"Bassel believed in a democratic Syria where all citizens are equal, respect their rights and their plurality,” Nyrabia told Al-Arabiya in June.

Dabashi stressed that international support for artists like Nyrabia is not in vain. These governments hear you, he said.

"It makes me more optimistic," Dabashi said. "If there is global attention and spotlight, they will be more reluctant to do something stupid."

As for Panahi -- film professor and frequent Panahi translator Jamsheed Akrami said that Panahi's desire to make films is so great, he anticipates even more work will come out of the filmmaker, despite his sentence.

"I can assure you this same desire will motivate him to make more movies even if he is still confined to his house as the only set on which he could operate," Akrami said. "Anytime I speak to him, he is full of film ideas. He has given new meaning to the idea of home movies."

Watch the trailer for "This is Not a Film":