Cannes zooms in on Iran's troubled film-makers

Iran's harried film-makers took centre stage in Cannes Tuesday as Abbas Kiarostami presented his latest work, while back home his colleague Jafar Panahi languished in a Tehran jail.

Kiarostami, who took the Palme d'Or here in 1997 but whose films are censored at home, presented "Certified Copy," about an English writer hitting it off in Italy with an art dealer played by French star Juliette Binoche.

The film, the first that the director has shot outside Iran, is one of the 19 movies in the race for the Palme top prize to be handed out on Sunday.

Jailed director Panahi has been invited to join the festival jury that will decide who wins the prestigious award.

But Panahi has been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since March 1, when he was detained reportedly for making a film about Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election.

The jury, headed by "Alice in Wonderland" director Tim Burton, last week joined calls for Panahi's release and left a seat symbolically empty for him on stage at the film festival's red-carpet gala opening.

Last Thursday Cannes festival organisers screened a clip of Panahi describing being interrogated by a police officer some time before his latest arrest.

"He asked me, 'Why do you stay in Iran? Why don't you make films abroad?" Panahi said in the clip.

Kiarostami, who won the 1997 Palme for best film with "Taste of Cherry" but whose movies have been banned from Iranian cinemas for more than a decade, has done just that.

He still lives in Iran but shot "Certified Copy" in Italy's Tuscany region.

It tells the story of a British academic, played by opera singer William Shimell - in a first film role - who goes to Italy to give a lecture about the relationship between the real and the fake in art.

He has an ambiguous encounter with a gallery owner, played by France's Binoche, in a typically elliptical Kiarostami plot whose theme, like that of the academic's lecture, asks if a copy can shed light on the original.

The director's previous film, "Shirin," is made up of 90 minutes of close-ups of the faces of around 100 women - among them a headscarved Binoche - as they watch a film based on a 12th-century Persian love poem.

Despite several Iranian movies winning awards at prestigious international festivals since 2005, when hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, movie makers complained about increased pressure and censorship.

Even under the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, when artists enjoyed relative liberty, Kiarostami's feature films "Ten" (2002) and "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999) were banned from Iranian theatres.

Cannes has encouraged other independent Iranian directors in the past.

It screened the animated film "Persepolis", about coming of age in the Islamic republic, which won the jury prize in 2007, and "Nobody Knows About The Persian Cats" last year.

Both films prompted angry condemnation from Iran's hardline authorities.

But Cannes - and the French government - continue to support Iran's movie-makers.

This year French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have also urged Iran to release Panahi.

Iran has not responded publicy to their calls.