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Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been banned from making movies or leaving Iran

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The protests and mass arrests in Iran say a lot about the social and political unrest there. But it is the country's artists who give us a glimpse at the daily lives of everyday Iranians. And those artists always pay a price. The filmmaker Jafar Panahi recently went on a hunger strike until authorities released him from prison on bail, where he was held on charges of, quote, "propagandizing against the government." Mr. Panahi is banned from leaving the country, from making films and giving media interviews. At times he's even prohibited from leaving his house.

He still manages to make movies. For instance, his 2011 movie, "This Is Not A Film," was made while he was under house arrest. His latest, "No Bears," looks at love, superstition and fear. And like all of his films, it layers the personal with the political. In this exchange, his proxy director has crossed the border from Turkey into Iran, telling him that he's worried that Panahi will be recognized and reported to the authorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO BEARS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).

SIMON: We're joined now by Roxana Hadadi, critic at Vulture. Thank you so much for being with us.

ROXANA HADADI: Thank you for having me on.

SIMON: Can you give us some idea of Mr. Panahi's significance as an artist and filmmaker within his country?

HADADI: I think a lot of people see him as embodying the creative spirit in a very unique way. You mentioned that despite being put under house arrest, he has continued to make films. He has continued to make films that are purposefully critiquing the Iranian government and some of the political practices and the suppression, I would say. There is this sort of fuzziness and slipperiness in his movies where you might think you're watching something, quote-unquote, "real." It's not real, but the emotional impact of it is still very legitimate.

SIMON: He's been in trouble with the authorities for years. But what led to his most recent arrest?

HADADI: So the most recent arrest came last summer. He had gone to inquire about what had happened to a couple of other directors. And so when he had been sentenced about 12 years ago, it was sort of the deferred six-year sentence and this period of house arrest. So when he went to inquire what happened to these other directors - they were also sort of making political statements - they decided to re-activate that sentence and imprison him.

SIMON: In "No Bears" - it's set in an Iranian village near the country's border with Turkey. And he's trying to direct a movie in Turkey by video chat because he's banned from leaving the country. This isn't a documentary, but it does give us an idea of what Iranian artists have to contend with, doesn't it?

HADADI: It does. I think it gives you a sense of all the different ways of navigation and negotiation that are happening. You mentioned that he's basically directing this film over WhatsApp. So there's the very practical issue of, how do I find internet connectivity in a country that sometimes shuts down the internet? And how, you know, how do you create art with collaborators when you're not physically there? So, yeah, I think there is sort of this double layer of what are the actual practical difficulties and then sort of what are the emotional difficulties? How do you control a crew? How do you work with your actors? How do you tell this story from a physical distance?

SIMON: We should note in 2010, the government imposed a ban on Mr. Panahi to keep him from making films for 20 years. So how does he manage to keep making films time and again?

HADADI: If you've watched any of these films, if you've watched "This Is Not A Film" or if you've watched "Taxi," he sort of is just putting himself out there. He has become a character in his own work. In "Taxi" he is a taxi driver, and the film is his connections with the people that he's driving around. I think there is sort of this - up until this point there had been a little bit of, OK, you know, we'll sort of let you do what you want, but there's always the threat of something could happen. And I think unfortunately, in this most recent occurrence, that threat actually came to pass.

SIMON: Let me ask you, there's a moment in his 2015 film Taxi, when a notable human rights attorney, Nasrin Sotoudeh - she's a passenger and says, you have been released from prison, but the outside world is only a bigger prison. They make your nearest friends into your worst enemies. That's quite a chilling commentary, isn't it?

HADADI: It is. And I think it's something that Iranian people in Iran and in the diaspora and people living in any sort of regime that is particularly interested in controlling its people is aware of, right? I mean, there's sort of a state of fear and tension and paranoia that comes with making and watching Panahi's art. And I think there is this sense of, who will talk? What will they say? Who will be a witness against me?

And all of those questions come up in "No Bears" as well, in a very explicit way, in a film that is sort of about village tradition, but also about a trial-esque (ph) encounter with elders and with a system of power that doesn't want to change. And so "No Bears" is also grappling with this - right? - in a way that is both explicitly about what Panahi is going through and about what everyone in the country is going through to a certain degree.

SIMON: His name is known in cinematic circles, but should his name and work be better known in the West? Should people be lining up to see his films or at least available to download them, to stream?

HADADI: I think so. I mean, this might be my nationalistic answer, but I think that all Iranian cinema is important and worth watching. And I think what Panahi does is so interesting, and that we discussed before in that he's walking this line between feature filmmaking and documentary filmmaking. So I think he's giving a view into the country that is very deliberate in terms of what he's showing with how do men and women interact? How do people from the city and people from the country interact?

There's all that stuff. But I also think the films are just beautifully made. They're so engrossing. They're so engaging. There are various moments in "No Bears" where I just thought to myself, I don't know how he pulled this off from a filmmaking perspective. So I do think there should be more attention. Panahi is up there and I think worth being discovered.

SIMON: Roxana Hadadi, critic at Vulture. Thanks so much for being with us.

HADADI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.