It is easy to take our right to freedom of speech for granted. For many of us it is hard to imagine trying to survive in a world where people are hunted down and persecuted for their political opinions, their sexuality or their religion. Often people are silenced because they want to affect change or challenge the ruling establishment. Sometimes it is because they want to make art.
This year, two directors nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at Cannes film festival will not be able to attend the event due to restrictions imposed by their respective governments. Russian theatre and film director and outspoken Kremlin critic Kirill Serebrennikov and the Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi are both unable to leave their countries due to criminal charges critics allege are politically motivated.
For Panahi, the fact that he has made a film at all is some feat. In 2010 he was handed a 20-year ban that was supposed to forbid him from writing or directing after he was found guilty of “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” because he tried to shoot a documentary about the country’s disputed 2009 presidential elections. He was also prohibited from leaving the country as well as banned from speaking to the media. But despite the Iranian government’s attempt to silence Panahi, he has since directed four films and has come up with inventive ways to distribute his work. His 2011 documentary, This Is Not A Film, about his house arrest was smuggled to Cannes on a USB drive hidden inside a cake. His latest film, Three Faces, a story about three female actors at different stages in their careers in post-revolution Iran, will premiere at Cannes this month regardless of whether or not he is allowed to attend, and the film will continue Panahi’s work to highlight the challenges faced by Iranian women.
Serebrennikov’s film Leto (Summer) tells the story of the underground rock scene that emerged in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. It is his second film to receive recognition at the festival, but this year he will spend it under house arrest after facing charges of embezzlement. A string of leading Russian actors and film-makers have spoken in his defence, claiming the charges are the Kremlin’s attempt at payback for Serebrennikov’s public criticism of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and his support for the country’s persecuted LGBT community.
The cases of Serebrennikov and Panahi are a reminder to us all that despite the will of the ruling elite, the pen, or in this case the camera, is mightier than the sword. Two dissident directors who continue to work under state restrictions prove the role the creative arts have in inspiring bravery and challenging those who set the rules.
Both film-makers won’t get the chance to see how their work is received at this year’s festival, but for Panahi at least he can take some joy out of knowing his work is being seen on foreign soil. On his Instagram profile last month, Panahi shared a clip from his film and wrote:
“My biggest wish as a film-maker is for my films to be shown outside Iran, even in one cinema, in the farthest of places.”
This year’s Palme d’Or shortlist will make sure both films stretch far beyond state boundaries.