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Banned Iranian Director Escapes House Arrest by Skyping to a Film Festival

Jafar Panahi is banned from making movies or leaving the country, but the Iranian director appears live onscreen at Karlovy Vary Film Festival for a screening of his new film


Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who has been barred from leaving the country and prohibited from making movies because what the government has said is “propaganda against the state,” found a way around both restrictions on Wednesday night at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Getty ImagesPanahi made a live appearance — via Skype — at the festival, which presented his new film, “Closed Curtain,” the second he’s made since the ban was imposed in 2010.

The film was shot inside Panahi’s villa on the Caspian Sea and smuggled out of the country, as was last year’s “This Is Not a Film.”

With both co-director Kambuzia Partovi and star Maryam Moqadam having their passports confiscated in the wake of the film’s appearance at the Berlin Film Festival in January, the director’s daughter, Solmaz Panahi, served as the film’s in-person ambassador in Karlovy Vary, a spa town west of Prague in the Czech Republic that has been holding a festival for 48 years.

“It is more a piece of art than a film,” said Solmaz Panahi of the allegorical fiction — but despite her disclaimer, “Closed Curtain” is clearly more of a movie than last year’s “This Is Not a Film,” which was essentially a filmed monologue in which Panahi talked about the movie he’d like to make if he were allowed to make movies.

That film made the Oscar shortlist in the Best Documentary Feature category and helped land Panahi an invitation to join the Academy last week. But the director didn’t thank the Academy in his appearance onscreen at Karlovy Vary, where the late-night audience in the Lazne III theater greeted the surprise appearance with a huge ovation.

Instead, he thanked the festival itself and said it helped him meet a number of other filmmakers when he went there in 2001 for a retrospective of his films.

“Unfortunately I have lost that [filmmaking] family, but my heart is with you,” he said. “It is very painful for me to not be a part of society, because I make film about society … And now I live in an absolute world of melancholy.”

But Panahi has also managed to work in that world, angering Iranian authorities further in the process.

When “Closed Curtain” premiered in Berlin, Iran lodged a formal protest with the festival, declaring, “Its officials should amend their behavior because in cultural and cinematic exchange, this is not correct.” The film later screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April, before coming to Karlovy Vary.

Closed Curtain“Closed Curtain” channels the melancholy Panahi said he feels into a dense, surprising and resonant story about an Iranian screenwriter who shuts himself up in his house after fighting with authorities who are confiscating and killing dogs for being “impure in Islamic society.”

The screenwriter soon has other guests, notably a young woman who is part annoyance, part conscience, part symbol. The film, which won the screenwriting award at Berlin, gets very meta, with Panahi himself eventually appearing as his work explores the despair that comes with isolation, and the very idea of making movies without being able to fully engage in the filmmaking process.

At times the film gets obvious, at times it’s tangled and opaque, and by the time it finishes Panahi has seemingly used up as many endings as Peter Jackson did in the last “Lord of the Rings” movie. But “Closed Curtain” is also a fascinating, riveting emotional drama — and the fact that the closest its maker could come to Karlovy Vary was to Skype in from his house arrest made it even more compelling.

Jafar PanahiPanahi’s appearance didn’t come until after 11 p.m., more than half an hour after it was supposed to start. But even the director might appreciate the reason for the delay: The previous film in that hall, “All My Good Countrymen,” ran far longer than scheduled because of lengthy comments from its 88-year-old director, Vojtech Jasny.

Jasny’s main topic: How his film, which was set in post-World War II Czechoslovakia, was made in the late ’60s during the country’s brief flowering of freedom (the “Prague Spring”), but banned when the Soviet Union invaded to halt the liberalization in 1968.