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Canadian filmmakers weigh in for Jafar Panahi

A number of major Canadian cultural and human rights organizations are joining the protest against the imprisonment of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, part of a campaign that could get more of the world's attention come Oscar time.

Late last month, director Paul Haggis, Martin Scorsese and Sean Penn became the latest Hollywood names to voice their condemnation of Panahi's imprisonment, with Haggis calling on actors and filmmakers to wear white lapel ribbons in Panahi's honour when making public appearances. With the Academy Awards coming Feb. 27, the ribbons could be on prominent display.

Now, the Directors Guild of Canada have also joined the international outcry. They plan to send a letter to Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon, possibly as soon as Thursday, protesting Panahi's sentencing. Other organizations - from the Writers Guild of Canada and Human Rights Watch Canada to PEN Canada and the Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec - have signed the letter as well.

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In addition, a separate petition has been signed by documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, indie director Reginald Harkema, Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Babak Payami and director Patricia Rozema. That petition is being circulated among a number of Canada's most prominent filmmakers.

After months of harassment and intermittent imprisonment, Panahi, a celebrated Iranian director who has shown his support for the political opposition in Iran, was sentenced in December to six years in prison by the government for "propaganda against the state" and handed a potentially career-ending, 20-year ban from making films and leaving the country. Panahi's colleague Mohammad Rasoulof was given the same sentence.

Brian Anthony, the Directors Guild's chief executive officer, said there will be further steps to bring Panahi's plight to public attention, although various Canadian organizations are still deciding on the best course of action ahead of the Oscars and major film festivals such as Berlin and Cannes.

Many cultural figures and organizations in North America and Europe have already voiced their support for Panahi, particularly during his earlier arrest at the time of the last Cannes film festival in May, when his chair among the festival's jury was left empty in his honour.

Beyond the potential for white ribbons to show up in force at the Oscars, the next Berlin film festival in February is scheduled to show a number of Panahi's films, including Offside, about girls dressing as men in order to sneak in a soccer stadium. Panahi had been invited to sit on the Berlin jury. As with the last Cannes festival, his seat will be left symbolically empty.

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Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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