NYFCC: Special award for Jafar Panahi

This year, we at NYFCC gave out three special awards, one to Jake Perlin, curator, distributor and publisher in recognition of his indispensable contributions to film culture, one to dGenerate Films for its invaluable work bringing independent films to China, and finally, one to Jafar Panahi, for “dogged bravery as an artist, and for the humanity and beauty of a body of work created under the most oppressive circumstances”. I wrote the essay for our program on Jafar Panahi (the final page of the program: fitting. Not because of me, but because – imo – there is nothing more important going on in film right now than what is going on with Jafar Panahi, and, by extension, all Iranian artists).

So I thought I’d share my essay here.


In his influential 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”, playwright and dissident Václav Havel wrote about what it meant to “live within the truth” while surrounded by a “culture of lies”. The system “works only as long as people are willing to live within the lie”. If a citizen of a tyrannical society decides one day to start living “within the truth” then: “He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, [he] has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.”

This is the example Jafar Panahi has set. By living within the truth, he has paid an enormous price. Just like Havel, Panahi’s films travel the world, winning awards, while being banned in his native Iran. And yet Panahi has persevered, under unimaginable odds and oppression. He has insisted from the start that he makes “humanistic” films, not political ones. In a 2001 interview with Senses of Cinema, Panahi said, “A political person can only see black or white. But I intertwine the tones.” You can see this in The White Balloon (1995), The Mirror (1997), The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), and Offside (2006). Each one has political overtones, but the individual attempting to live within the truth of a society designed to drive them all mad is front and center.

Panahi was banned from making films in 2010. This did not stop him. He continued shooting in secret, and he has created a remarkable body of dissident work. In July 2022, Panahi was imprisoned again, and given a six-year sentence. A month or so later, Iranians rose up as one to protest the death of Mahsa Amini. The protests continue unabated. The mere existence of This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi (2015), Three Faces (2018), and this year’s No Bears could be seen as a kind of miracle, but they aren’t miracles at all. They are a result of Panahi’s dogged insistence that the emperor is naked, and his determination to show the world that it is possible to live within the truth, even when the world demands you buy – and live – the lie.

This entry was posted in Directors, Movies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.