In July 2011, Iranian authorities arrested actor and filmmaker Pegah Ahangarani as she prepared to go to Berlin to blog about the Women’s World Cup for Deutsche Welle. They sent her to Tehran’s Evin Prison for 17 days.
When they released her, members of the public treated her as a hero. One grocer, she told the arts magazine Tajrobeh, even refused to take her money. Going to prison in Iran, she observed, “adds to social stature.” At a time when many Iranian filmmakers were going into exile, the state forbade her to leave.
Last month, she missed the American premiere of Darband, a film in which she starred, at the Chicago International Film Festival. Then, as a result of the 2011 case, a judge sentenced her to 18 months in prison on vague ‘security charges’.
The daughter of filmmakers Manizheh Hekmat and Jamshid Ahangarani, Pegah gained a reputation as an activist in her late teens, when she appeared in director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s documentary Our Times (2002), about supporters of Mohammad Khatami, a popular reformist who was campaigning for his second presidential term.
After the anti-Western populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, Ahangarani emerged as a subtle and humorous blogger and columnist. While covering the Berlin Film Festival in February 2009 she satirised Iranian sensitivities by noting that, since she had seen one film dealing with homosexuality and another about Israeli cinema, she had better just blog about Berlin’s cafes instead.
In June 2009, she backed the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and supported the ‘Green Movement’, which challenged the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s second term. As authorities crushed the movement, they imposed a dark new era on Iranian cinema, most notably by arresting the director Jafar Panahi and forbidding him to make films.
Yet not all filmmakers encountered difficulties. A genre of pro-government films eclipsed the work of more liberal or reformist-minded visionaries, sometimes with the direct aid of Iranian officials. Such was Ahangarani’s eye for the times that she had already begun a documentary, Dehnamakis, about Mahssoud Dehnamaki, a hardline director who described the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war as his vision of utopia.
Dehnamakis is a study of The Outcasts, Dehnamaki’s popular trilogy about the Iran-Iraq war, and the politics of hardliner cinema. Even before the film was widely seen, Dehnamaki, who had a history of attacking and boycotting liberal filmmakers, protested the film and called Ahangarani a liar. The BBC’s Persian-language service, which the Iranian government regards as a subversive force, broadcast the documentary in May 2011, allowing it to be seen in Iran, where many people pick up broadcasts via illegal satellite dishes. In the regime’s eyes, this added to the number of ‘red lines’ Ahangarani had crossed.
Observers may ask, for the sake of clarity, what exactly Ahangarani did to get sentenced to 18 months in prison. The charges against her remain vague, but vagueness is a defensive tic of Iran’s capricious and unstable political system.
“I’m not a political person,” Ahangarani once told Tajrobeh. “I’m just an artist responding to social issues in my country.” Her claim might have been defensive, but the very traits that make her marginal – her artistic stubbornness and femininity – are what also make her a political figure, even a model of rebellion.
After her arrest, the Iranian opposition website Kaleme reported people were shouting her name in the cinemas of Tehran. This was evidence of her political, as well as social, stature.