The same weekend Jafar Panahi’s The Circle opened in New York, the Iranian director was handcuffed, chained, and thrown into detention—not in his home country, where censors have banned his film for its account of the restrictions women face in Iran, but at Kennedy Airport, while Panahi was merely changing planes.
Panahi’s ordeal began April 15 en route from the Hong Kong Film Festival to festivals in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. At Kennedy, the Immigration and Naturalization Service demanded to fingerprint and take mug shots of him, but he refused. “Freedom entails rebelling against any policy that hinders freedom anywhere,” said the 40-year-old filmmaker, speaking from Tehran through an interpreter. Having rejected changes to his film in defiance of Iranian censors, he said that if he had accepted the fingerprinting, “my message would not be as effective.”
The INS detained Panahi as an “inadmissible alien” since he lacked a transit visa. “United Airlines had informed everyone who had inquired that no transit visa would be required,” said Wendy Lidell of Winstar Cinema, his distributor. Immigration officers chained his feet and locked him to a wooden bench crowded with people from around the world, including a crying boy from Sri Lanka.
The next morning, Panahi was escorted in handcuffs to a plane past other passengers. “It was just a torture among all those watching eyes,” he said. He wasn’t allowed to continue his trip to South America since INS policy required that he be sent to his point of departure. So Panahi was shipped on a 15-hour flight back to Hong Kong, where his visa had expired. Panahi’s saga, like the narrative in his latest film, ended by coming full circle.
This kind of treatment is standard practice under U.S. regulations. In 1996, concurrent with the antiterrorism bill that followed the Oklahoma City bombing, attorney general Janet Reno signed an order requiring the INS to fingerprint and photograph Iranians upon entry into the U.S. “We always think it is a very high-profile humiliation,” said Hossein Nosrat of Iran’s mission to the United Nations. “The Iranians subjected to this feel like criminals.” The State Department said waivers from fingerprinting are “exceptional” since they require the attorney general’s authorization.
Since the election of Iran’s reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, in 1997, the U.S. government has encouraged cultural contacts as a way of cooling political tensions. But when Leila director Dariush Mehrjui and his wife arrived for a retrospective of his work at the Walter Reade in 1998, they had no idea about the fingerprinting policy. They asked to return home rather than submit to it, but the INS persevered, since they were already on U.S. soil. In March, when Marziyeh Meshkini and her husband, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, came to promote her film, The Day I Became a Woman, they were also fingerprinted.
The policy has led some filmmakers to talk of boycotting American festivals. Iranian hardliners, who claim that the “Khatami wave” of directors produce films for export, have pounced on the incident. A headline in the conservative Iranian newspaper Kayhan translated as “Mr. Panahi, when you make films for your American masters, this is how you are paid back.”
Panahi has written an open letter to the National Board of Review, which had given The Circle its Freedom of Expression Award, asking them to condemn “the savage acts of U.S. immigration officials.” “It’s an outrage, it’s a shame for the United States of America,” said Leon Friedman, the civil liberties lawyer who serves as the board’s president. Consulting the ACLU, Friedman himself is looking into ways of suing for damages and securing an injunction against INS policies.
“Perhaps audiences would understand my film better,” Panahi said, “if they could know the director was locked up at the same time” it began its run in New York. “Especially in a country whose symbol is liberty, how can there be such oppression?”