Jafar Panahi: Home of the brave

Jafar Panahi smuggled his new film out of Iran in a bag, he tells Roger Clarke
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He's always getting into scrapes these days. Indeed, Jafar Panahi, a formerly mild-mannered 43-year-old Iranian film director, seems to relish confrontations. Perhaps it was being manhandled, chained and deported from New York in a scandalous airport incident back in April, 2001 (he was in town to promote The Circle, after it won the Unicef Award and Golden Lion in Venice) when he refused to be fingerprinted, as all Iranian nationals arriving in the US now are. Or perhaps it was The Circle private preview he held for dour Iranian members of parliament: outraged at its liberal agenda, and having harassed him while he was making it, the bearded theocrats stymied its release for eight months.

Now Panahi has upped the ante again - he smuggled his latest film out of Iran in a suitcase. Crimson Gold is consequently banned in its cinemas despite international festival recognition (the Un Certain Regard award in Cannes).

He's been repeatedly summoned to explain himself by the Iranian authorities in recent months ("the last time I went to an interview I looked at my wife and wasn't sure whether I was coming back") and was dressed down in sinister fashion in Tehran airport on his way out to Edinburgh a few weeks ago, which is where I met him. During the course of our interview he was phoned by his wife - worried sick about his being out of contact for 24 hours. It was a false alarm; his phone had simply run out of power. Still, you sense the serious issues at play here. Interviewers of Panahi in earlier years noticed his caution in any matter that appeared critical of the mullahs running his country. Now his translator warns him from saying too much (he told me how he smuggled Crimson Gold out, but she refused to translate).

Despite this new gravitas, there's still something about Crimson Gold that suggests Panahi - not put too fine a point on it - doesn't like to take the easy option. What director would knowingly cast a barely medicated paranoid schizophrenic, a man not above attacking fellow actors and smashing up the set? (OK, so there's Werner Herzog.)

Panahi and (mentor and scriptwriter for the film) Abbas Kiarostami found Hussein Emadeddin delivering pizzas for a living. They instantly deemed him perfect to play the pizza delivery man at the centre of their movie.

Panahi had worked with Kiarostami on Through the Olive Trees, and Kiarostami had returned the favour by writing his best-known film The White Balloon. They're friends. It turns out it was Kiarostami who first drew Panahi's attention to the story that became Crimson Gold, recounting it when the two were driving to an art show featuring some of Kiarostami's photographic work. Kiarostami casually mentioned a newspaper item about a man who had tried to rob a jewellery store and then committed suicide during the robbery; Panahi was transfixed (The Circle - a tale of women imprisoned and women killing their children was also inspired by a newspaper article). By the time they got to the gallery Panahi was in such a state he couldn't go in. He later called Kiarostami out of the reception and asked him to write the script on the spot.

So the film was written, and then the two film-makers went out and about looking for that all-important central casting. Having auditioned Emadeddin, they decided to take a risk with his mental condition. When Werner Herzog chose to work with Bruno S on Kaspar Hauser, the long-institutionalised non-professional actor found it hard: bouts of solitary screaming were sometimes required before he was able to go before the camera. Panahi too found Emadeddin very demanding.

"On two occasions I wanted to stop the film; but then I sat down and worked out a way of finishing the film without him; somehow that gave me the strength to go on. We could never guess what he would do next. He was always getting into fights. He was afraid of people in power, and since I was directing the film, he never tried it on with me - but you never knew what he would decide was a declaration of World War Three. Once he trashed the set. The next day I went over to his house and asked him why; he said it was because Le Pen had received 17 per cent of the vote in the French elections."

I look at Panahi's gentle, crumpled face and see a man of growing conviction. It's a conviction, clearly, even a troubled schizophrenic can recognise. Refreshed by his moral stand, he's now locked in confrontation: on racist US immigration policy, and freedom of artistic expression in Iran. "When I see injustice in my own country I get upset and make films about it. And if I see it outside my country as in America I also react to that."

He tells me he won't return to the US if he still has to give fingerprints on arrival, and has posted an open letter to the US government on the internet (www.mediamonitors.net/ jafarpanahi1.html) describing his experience with brutish American immigration officials (who had him chained to a bench even as people watched his film at a Greenwich Village cinema). At the same time he intends to resist attempts by the Iranian government to censor and suppress his films. "I am free to protest intuitively and instinctively. All my films are about social issues and that won't change."

Crimson Gold is a ground-breaking Iranian film, amazingly simple in style and construction, but with a new power and directness. It's a mesh of Kiarostami's whispering, bone-dry subtlety and Panahi's scarlet and visceral sense of anger. It's very bleak.

Your films have grown much darker, I say. He shakes his head. "It is reality that is getting darker, not my movies."

'Crimson Gold' is on release