Iran win at Berlin film fest called ‘free speech triumph’

THE Berlin film festival wrapped up Sunday after giving its Golden Bear top prize to Iranian dissident director Jafar Panahi, in a move hailed as a triumph for freedom of expression.

“Taxi” is Panahi’s third picture smuggled out of the country in defiance of an official 20-year filmmaking ban, imposed for a documentary he tried to make on the unrest following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election.

Hollywood director Darren Aronofsky, the jury president at the 65th Berlinale, said at a gala awards ceremony late Saturday that Panahi had surmounted restrictions that had the power to “damage the soul of the artist”.

“Instead of allowing his spirit to be crushed and giving up, instead of allowing himself to be filled with anger and frustration, Jafar Panahi created a love letter to cinema,” Aronofsky said.

The 54-year-old Panahi is also barred from travelling abroad and could not attend the festival. His young niece Hana Saeidi, who appears in “Taxi” along with the director, wept as she picked up the statuette for him and held it aloft for the cameras.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hailed the choice among 19 films in the competition as “an important symbol for artistic freedom”, as commentators noted the principle was under threat around the world.

Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel wrote in a front-page editorial Sunday that the festival had shown that “especially in these days of global unrest, art and political consciousness can light a beacon”.

News website Spiegel Online said the Golden Bear sent “an important message against the restriction of art”, calling it a “triumph for free speech”.

“The Berlinale remains political,” it said, noting the festival’s reputation for championing edgy, topical cinema.

Saeidi wept “tears of joy that the world took note of the fate of her uncle, standing in for many more artists threatened with censorship and repression in Iran and other countries that restrict artistic and personal freedom,” it said.

Panahi’s last movie shot in secret, 2013’s elegiac “Closed Curtain”, won a Silver Bear in Berlin for best screenplay, drawing protests from the Iranian government.