The story of political repression that began at the Cannes Film Festival last May continued at Venice, whose 67th edition is now on at the Lido. This is the story of director Jafar Panahi, Iran’s enfant terrible.
His wonderfully crafted and provocatively narrated nine-minute short, The Accordion, opened an important section of this Italian Film Festival, called Venice Days. Panahi could not attend the screening. The Iranian regime did not allow him to travel, although he was freed from jail some weeks ago.
In a note he sent to the Festival and which was read out, he said: “I was here at the Venice Film Festival 10 years ago with my film The Circle. This year, my short film The Accordion, which I made before my imprisonment, is being shown at this great Festival. Although I have been released from prison now, I am still not free to travel outside of the country and attend film festivals. Also, I have been officially barred from making films in the past five years. When a filmmaker is not allowed to make films, he is mentally imprisoned. He may not be confined to a small cell, but he is still wandering in a larger prison.
In May, he could not be part of the jury at Cannes, because he was under arrest for having made an anti-regime movie in a country that practises zero tolerance for dissent of any kind. In a symbolic and touching gesture, Cannes placed an empty chair on the stage to mark Panahi’s absence.
Referring to his latest work, The Accordion, Panahi said: "I am a social-minded filmmaker, and I am sensitive to every new phenomenon which occurs in my society. Of course I react to it and, perhaps, ‘The Accordion’ represents my reaction to the events surrounding me, and my way of observing reality."
He added: "The Accordion is the story of humankind’s materialistic need to survive in a pretentious religion. In it, a boy is prevented from playing for reasons of religious prohibition, which he accepts in order to survive. But the main character of the movie is the girl or, perhaps, in my view, the symbol of the next generation. In her ideal world she realises man’s need for survival and decides to avoid the violence and share her small income with someone else who is also in need.".Indeed it is. Two children eke out their living on the streets of Tehran by playing their accordion. Passersby generously offer them coins, till the instrument is forcibly taken away by a man, who finds the children, a brother and sister, guilty of having played music just outside a mosque. The boy pleads to be forgiven, saying he just did not realise that he was outside a mosque. The children cry out in desperation; they need the money to buy medicines for their sick mother at home. But the man remains unmoved and disappears with the accordion into the city’s labyrinth of lanes.
A little later, the children spot the man sitting in a square playing the instrument. The boy gets hold of a stone, ready to hit him with it. The girl asks the brother not to do so. And as the children inch towards the man, he continues playing music and ultimately returns the accordion without any struggle.
Probably, the power of music moved the man to compassion, to a higher state of tolerance. The movie is a powerful metaphor on violence, lenience and, finally, hope. An absolute masterpiece, I would think. And, in nine minutes, Panahi shook us all up with a searing piece of truth.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering the Venice Film Festival for 10 years.)