Sunday, May 22, 2011

Art, Politics and Censorship

This week the Cannes film festival screened two films whose directors were absent from the event: Iranian filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi. Both directors were recently sentenced to prison terms for making political films and are banned from making movies for the next 20 years. Each is appealing his sentence. While neither is currently in prison, both Rasoulof and Panahi have been unable to leave Iran to attend the festival. This kind of attack against Iranian filmmakers will likely prove counterproductive to those in the Islamic Republic who feel threatened by dissident politics. Yesterday Rasoulof was awarded the Cannes prize for best director in the Un Certain Regard section for his film "Be Omid-e Didar" or "Goobye". The film is ironically about an Iranian lawyer who is unable to secure a visa to leave Iran. And because of his ban Panahi is not actually the director of the film that was screened, but instead its subject. "This is Not a Film" is directed by Mojtaba Mirtahasebi who in the film spends a day with Panahi discussing the new project that he is unable to make. Ultimately the international attention these two films generate about the plight of their filmmakers will provide ammunition for those who blindly support the Green Movement, highlighting the positions of the opposition without any contextual or historical background about larger political struggles in Iran. This is a strike against the Islamic Republic. It will also curtail the important cultural work of Iranian cinema, which traditionally is so rich and complex that it only makes audiences more respectful of Iran's diverse and magnificent culture. I fall in love with Iran over and over again while watching beautiful films like "Children from Heaven," "The Color of Paradise" and "The Mirror." If the current crackdown ensures that films like these cannot be made in future, this is a strike against all Iranians.

Another kind of censorship happened on Friday with the abrupt closure of the World Press Photo exhibition in Beirut. This traveling exhibition features the winners of the annual prize and includes the work of Israeli Amit Shaal, who won third prize in the arts and entertainment stories category. His story consists of historical photographs of street scenes in Israel juxtaposed with contemporary scenes. Well, ten days after the exhibition opened Lebanese security suddenly ordered that Shaal's work be removed, apparently because Lebanon and Israel are in a state of war. At first I was troubled by this news. World Press Photo, which has yet to publicly comment on the incident, decided that it was better to dismantle the entire exhibition rather than face censorship. According to the Associated Press, Shaal was surprised by the decision to censor his images because he reasoned that his work was not intended to be political. “It’s an examination of what was once and what is now,” he said. “The viewer can reach his or her own conclusion.” Well that is complete nonsense. Looking at Shaal's work on the World Press Photo web site, his work is extremely political and highly problematic. In the 12 photographs featured in the story, only one includes any sign of a Muslim population and one seemingly pays tribute to English colonizers. None of the photographs illustrate the wide scale destruction of human lives, property and lands that has occurred as a result of the creation and expansion of the Jewish State of Israel. Shaal's work is propaganda, albeit beautiful and artistic, that promotes a deeply romantic vision of an historical Jewish land called Israel, as if this pretty narrative was not fiercely contested by the Arabs who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of displacement. If art is political then artists need to take responsibility for their work. Censorship is almost always wrong, but so is claiming the mantle of neutrality when telling stories that reproduce oppression and injustice.

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