"The Circle," a new movie by award-winning director Jafar Panahi that opened in Washington on Friday, is a gritty tale about the oppression and occasional brutality women face when trapped in the underbelly of street life here in the Iranian capital.
On April 15, the same weekend the film premiered to glowing reviews in New York, Panahi was given a graphic, firsthand example of what Iranian men face in the underbelly of John F. Kennedy International Airport when they arrive in the United States without a visa: He was arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, handcuffed and chained to a bench overnight in leg irons before being unceremoniously expelled the next day.
Although he speaks very limited English, Panahi was never provided with a translator. But he got the message.
"They put a big belt around me with a very big hook in front of it, and then they cuffed me and fixed the handcuffs to the hook," Panahi said through an interpreter during an interview at his home outside of Tehran. "I looked at the senior officer and laughed and said, "Is this the USA?"
And he said, "No, this is Iran."
Most Iranians are aware that they have severely restricted access to the United States, and Panahi is no exception. Newspapers here give front-page treatment to what they consider the humiliating and insulting law that requires every Iranian to be photographed and fingerprinted upon entering the United States. Once in the country, Iranians are not allowed to travel outside a 25-mile radius of New York without permission.
But Panahi was in New York simply to change flights. He said that when INS officials discovered that he did not have a visa, they insisted that he be fingerprinted and photographed. "I explained my job and career," he said. "They kept insisting that I be fingerprinted. They said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'I'm an artist, I want a translator.' And I said I would never, ever agree to fingerprinting."
Panahi had made two previous trips to the United States to ceremonies honoring his work in Washington and New York, and on both occasions the fingerprinting procedure had been waived by the U.S. government at his insistence. At the Washington ceremony in March, which recognized the works of several Iranian and American artists, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell paid tribute to the honorees in a letter read during the gala, saying, "It often falls to them to be the voice of our common humanity when politics would keep us silent."
Panahi's three widely released films have captured 26 international awards and earned him recognition as one of the most influential young directors challenging the limits of Iran's huge film industry and helping to transform it into one of the most vibrant in the world.
On this trip, however, Panahi was merely transiting through JFK on his way from a film festival in Hong Kong to other festivals in South America. It was supposed to be about a two-hour layover. Officials in San Francisco were trying to persuade him to attend their festival at the end of his trip, Panahi said, but since it looked doubtful that he would get a fingerprinting waiver, he told them it was unlikely he would come.
"I consider this law an inhumane rule," said Panahi, 40, who has waged fierce battles against government film censorship and other attacks on freedom in Iran, where "The Circle" has been banned. The American National Board of Review of Motion Pictures gave the film its Freedom of Expression Award last year.
In a letter to the board protesting his treatment at JFK, Panahi wrote, "As a filmmaker obsessed with social issues, my films deal with social problems and limits, and naturally I cannot be indifferent to racist, violent, insulting and inhumane acts any place in the world."
Unlike the outrage sparked when the Iranian wrestling team traveled to the United States and immediately returned home rather than submit to fingerprinting, Panahi's detention prompted conservatives in Tehran to react with thinly disguised glee. "Mr. Panahi, when you make films for your American masters, this is how they repay you," sneered the right-wing Kayhan newspaper.
U.S. State Department and INS officials said that two laws ensnared Panahi. First, Iran is on a list of 25 countries whose citizens must have a transit visa when passing through the United States to other destinations. When it was discovered that he did not have a visa, a second law kicked in requiring that he be fingerprinted and photographed before being issued one. That law applies to only four countries -- Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Libya.
According to the Federal Register, citizens from those countries are subject to more stringent checks because of "continuing concern for national security resulting from terrorist attacks and uncovered plots directed by [their] nationals."
Under the circumstances of his detention, an INS spokesman said, Panahi would have been considered an inadmissible alien and thus was not eligible for "the same rights of due process as someone who is lawfully admitted to the country," including the right to an attorney, a phone call and the reading of his rights.
Panahi, explaining his ordeal while relaxing at home surrounded by old U.S. movie posters and small pictures of icons such as Clark Gable, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, said that he had asked officials at the film festivals he was to attend whether he needed a transit visa, and their answers were "vague." So when he arrived at the Hong Kong airport, he checked with the desk agents of his carrier, United Airlines.
"I told them, 'I'm Iranian, and I don't have a visa,' and the people of United insisted that I did not need a transit visa."
In fact, most airlines check a passenger's passport on international flights to ensure that they have the necessary documentation for their destinations, "so I was totally convinced there was no problem because I was allowed to board the airliner," Panahi said.
Whitely Statley, a spokeswoman for United, said she could not comment on what Panahi may have been told, but that it didn't matter. "If someone is transiting through the United States, they need to call the State Department -- our customer service representatives are not trained to know who these people are and whether they are allowed to come into the United States of America."
Furthermore, INS officials said that when a foreigner is detained at a port of entry into the United States and the agency does not have a translator, it is the responsibility of the airline to provide one. Statley said she was not aware of such a regulation.
Panahi said that he was detained at about 6 p.m. at JFK, almost immediately after disembarking from the 15-hour flight from Hong Kong. After about three hours of jostling with INS officers over whether he would submit to fingerprinting, he was "chained like a medieval prisoner" and taken to another section of the airport, where the cuffs were removed and he was put in leg irons that were attached to a 12-foot bench with five other people sitting on it. The room was crowded with about 25 people from such diverse places as Sri Lanka, Peru, Iran, Mexico, Russia, India and Eastern Europe, he said.
Officers kept insisting that he submit to fingerprinting, and he refused. He asked for permission to make a phone call and for a translator, and they refused. When he asked for food, they brought a cold hamburger; he took one bite and couldn't finish it.
Panahi said a back injury kept him in excruciating pain through most of the night, and he didn't sleep. "The toilet adjoining the room was a very good thing, because when you asked for permission, they would unchain you from the bench and you could hobble over to the bathroom and they didn't follow you inside," he said.
"I respect your country's laws," Panahi told the officers in broken English and explained that he had gone to great lengths in the past to avoid coming into conflict with them. "I was never willing to travel to the United States" if it meant being fingerprinted, he said. "I didn't want to enter your territory or step foot on your land."
The 18-hour stalemate ended about noon the next day, Panahi said, when INS officers unchained his feet, recuffed his hands and escorted him to a United flight going back to Hong Kong. From there he returned home to Iran.
"It was torture the way they were taking me to the plane with the handcuffs and belt," he said. "That was the most humiliating part. While I was in custody, I felt I was being treated like a criminal when I wasn't one, and that gave me room to resist, and it was a beautiful feeling. But I couldn't explain to the people on the plane who I was and what had happened to me. Perhaps they thought I was a smuggler or had just been released from prison. But I really wanted them to know that I was not what they thought.
"I remember it was cloudy outside, and when the plane took off, I saw Miss Liberty and it seemed very funny," he said. "I was thinking whether that symbol was alive, if there was a human spirit behind it, or if no one had any sense of what freedom was."