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The Empty Chair
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

2011 is the year we hear a cry for social freedom in the Middle East. For me, it began with an empty seat on the Berlinale international jury. Jafar Panahi, an Iranian film director, was not only denied the chance to participate on the international jury for the competition films, but was arrested and sentenced to six years of imprisonment. Also, he is not allowed to make films for the next 20 years. This set off a worldwide protest and at different press conferences one could see various artists wearing a photo of Jafar Panahi. It is truly hard to believe that this could happen to such a gifted director.

Panahi’s career started with The White Balloon where he won a prize at Cannes. He has since then won several prizes including the Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 2006 for Offside. His films often take a critical look at the social circumstances of his country so perhaps it is a surprise that they waited so long to arrest him. The Golden Bear winner, Asghar Farhadi, said that it made him extremely sad when he called Panahi to say goodbye before he left Iran for Berlin, knowing that he was allowed to go when his friend was not.

Now the Berlinale is over and all eyes are watching this. Let us hope that the political scene will move towards personal freedom of expression in the Middle East, such as we have never seen before.