The first question that comes to one's mind after reading about Jafar Panahi's win at the Berlin Film Festival is whether the Darren Aronofsky jury was guided by political considerations while awarding the top Golden Bear Award to the Iranian director's Taxi.
I have not seen Taxi, and so will not be able to comment on the movie's artistic merits and demerits. But going beyond these, it is an undeniable fact that Panahi has won considerable sympathy and support of the international cinema fraternity in recent times.
Now under house arrest of sorts in Teheran with a possible jail term hovering over his head, Panahi has been banned from making films for 20 years till 2030. However, he managed to make three movies clandestinely and even have them smuggled to festivals: the 2011 Cannes (This Is Not A Film), the 2013 Berlin (Closed Curtain) and again to Berlin this year (Taxi).
Festivals like Cannes -- which strongly believe in and fearlessly advocates free expression -- have gone out of their way to celebrate Panahi. Once, Cannes placed an empty chair on the dais during the inaugural ceremony to tell the world that it missed having the auteur, who was to have been part of the jury that year.
Such empathy can play on the psyche of a jury. Although Panahi's This Is Not A Film did not walk away with any prize at Cannes, the Festival's jury in 2004, chaired by American helmer Quentin Tarantino, awarded the prestigious Palm d'Or to Michael Moore's documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 -- a prize most saw as political, as venting of rage. Tarantino, like many others of his ilk, and even the masses in the country, were angry with the Bush regime and upset over the body bags arriving from battlefields in Iraq. For Tarantino, Fahrenheit 9/11, a hard indictment of the Bush policies, provided a great opportunity to second Moore's views. And what better platform than Cannes to do this?
A senior member of the Cannes' administration told me later that the Festival itself was not too pleased with the Tarantino decision. But, well, what can you do? Cannes will never interfere with a jury, he said.
In India, other kinds of sentiments play. Language and regionalism among others. On the few occasions I have been on juries to select movies for the Indian Panorama of the International Film Festival of India, some members of the panel have always been appalled by my rejection of a Tamil movie when I felt that it did not warrant a place. "But you are a Tamil, you should be sympathetic to a movie from your state", they have said with sarcasm written all over their faces!
So, time will tell us whether Panahi's Taxi artistically deserved Berlin' Golden Bear. Or, was it sympathy and political pull at work?