By Amy Nicholson
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We haven’t talked about the music that comes at the end of the film.
That’s a piece of music that was written 61 or 62 years ago. It’s a sort of national anthem that’s known to all Iranians, though it’s never been the official national anthem. It was never appropriated by any government. Its lyrics liken Iran to a jewel and focus on its culture and arts. It’s not about the Shah or the Islamic Republic. It’s about Iran and love for and pride in the country and its history and arts. Because at the start of every soccer match, traditionally, the actual national anthem is played, I felt I had to include an anthem in my film. But I chose this one rather than the official one and placed it at the end rather than at the beginning of my film.
There’s a reference in the film to some women in white scarves who’d shown up in front of the bus carrying the Bahrain players at a previous match and were apparently taken to a glass booth from which they were allowed to watch the game. The soldier who’s reporting this says they were allowed in because the foreign press was there and the authorities wanted to avoid a scandal. Does this indicate that the foreign press can effect change in the day-to-day lives of Iranians?
Yes, of course. It might even be the very best way. In Iran, there’s virulent censorship. Many news outlets have been shut down. The Internet is filtered, and Web sites and blogs are taken down and blocked. So, often the only viable source of news and information is through the foreign media.
Even as filmmakers, we’ve had to rely on the press. When or if they don’t let us make a film we’re trying to make, we try to make sure the story makes it into the papers — headlines that read, “They’re not allowing Panahi to make his latest film.” If there’s enough of a din, the cost is too great for the government. Eventually, they back off and leave me alone.
About two years ago, at the time of the match between Germany and Iran, a group of women announced that they wanted to attend the game. Their way of identifying themselves was to wear white scarves and to show up to vindicate themselves and assert their right to take part. Because this was a film about soccer, I felt it was important to make mention of them.
As for those on the opposite side — those in charge — they look at the situation, and they have to assess what the cost will be. Is a confrontation with the women wearing white scarves worth it if there are consequences in the international media? It might be simpler just to let them watch the game from inside a glass booth. It makes a potential story just go away.
You live and work in Iran under the conditions imposed by a religious government, but you also constantly travel around the world and receive kudos from the international film community. How does moving in these two worlds, with their contrasting values and their starkly contradictory terms, affect you both in your daily life and in your work?
My problem began with my very first trip outside Iran. As soon as I stepped out of Iran, as soon as I saw the things I was seeing, the constant comparison began. That is, I realized there’s nothing we lack to make our world more like theirs. We have all the resources right here, natural and economic. We have everything. Why have we come to be like this? What happened to us? Why aren’t we using our resources? Iran is a country that is so vast and has so many microclimates within its borders that, at the moment, in one part of the country someone might be swimming outdoors and in another region someone might be skiing. This land could be a paradise. Why haven’t we done all we can for our country? I started to feel really upset.
However, every time I went abroad, I only had one wish, and that was to return home. The constant comparing wore me out and saddened me. But these trips do have one great benefit: When you just stay in Iran, what happens — and it happens gradually — is that you start to accept the way things are. You’re forced to accept that this is life and that where you are is the center of the world, as if the sun rose and set only in this, your country.
Then, one day in 2003, I was summoned to the Ministry of Information. My wife drove me there, and she waited in the car with the cell phone, talking to friends in the film community who were checking in with her to find out what my status was. I entered the building. There was a long, narrow corridor. I was told to sit on a bench until the interrogator came. After about five minutes, I was told to enter a room to my left. I opened the door, and when I saw a furnished room, I relaxed a little. I realized they weren’t going to be doing anything too drastic to me. After a couple of minutes, a man who was maybe 32 or 33 entered. He began a rambling monologue, quoting from government memos that indicated I’d published offensive things. I was pretty much sitting quietly, passively, not responding. The only thing I asked him, after he’d been talking for about 15 minutes nonstop, was if I could smoke. He asked that an ashtray be brought and then started talking again, repeating pretty much the same stuff, on and on and on. I was waiting for the right moment to cut in. This much I’d learned: If you let these people go on the offensive, there’s no end to it. You have to counter at some point. Then he said, “Why is it you’ve continued to stay here? Why don’t you just leave? Go abroad. They like you there, don’t they? They like your work. Go there. Why would you even want to remain here?”
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