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Jafar Panahi: A terrific filmmaker is in prison, not at Cannes where he belongs

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jafar-panahiImage Credit: Marc Grimwade/WireImage.comAs the Cannes Film Festival unspools over the next 10 days, one prestigious juror won’t have access to his rightful seat: Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin prison since March for his political views. A supporter of Iran’s Green Movement and opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Panahi has criticized the outcome of last year’s disputed presidential election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to power.  Protests and declarations of support have been issued by international critics’ groups, French government ministers, the Cannes Film Festival organizers, fellow Iranian filmmakers, and a power-packed American contingent of directors including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Oliver Stone. But so far, organized outcry hasn’t worked to free one independent-minded 49-year-old artist who makes movies admired around the world.

What can you or I do? I recommend we vote with our Netflix queue, and enjoy the power of Panahi’s eye for the intersection of realism and politically profound, deadpan absurdity. A quick study of the Netflix inventory suggests that his charming first feature, The White Balloon (1995), about the small, engrossing adventures of a little girl who wants to buy a goldfish, isn’t available. (Let me know if you learn otherwise.) But check out The Mirror (1997), which messes with the boundaries between character and reality; or the unflinching portrait of women penned in by society in The Circle (2000); or the saga of a pizza-delivery man on a motorbike trying to make his way around Tehran in Crimson Gold (2003).

Or just go straight to my favorite, the casually amazing tragicomic drama Offside (2006), in which young women disguise themselves as men in order get into a soccer stadium to watch a game. (Imagine the American brouhaha that would arise if men alone could attend a World Series baseball game!)

Thwarted by soldiers just doing their jobs — men who are barely past boyhood themselves — the women are literally held offside. But they’re clever, these female fans. And they’re never wilier than when they need a bathroom break, as any fan often does. Offside is about men, women, sports, adaptation, confrontation, empathy, and the reality of life in Iran, told with an honesty leavened with good humor. It’s world-class movie-making, and we need Jafar Panahi free to tell us more.