Iran's leading filmmaker denied U.S. visa

Director Abbas Kiarostami, one of international cinema's biggest names, is blocked from attending the New York Film Festival and speaking at Harvard.

By Andrew O'Hehir

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September 27, 2002 | Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian filmmaker who is widely considered one of the world's greatest living directors, has been denied a visa to enter the United States. Kiarostami had been invited to attend the New York Film Festival, where his new movie "Ten" will premiere on Sunday, and then to lecture at Harvard and at Ohio State University.

Kiarostami, 62, has written and directed some 30 movies since the early 1970s, and has been compared by critics to such titans of international cinema as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa. He won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival -- perhaps the movie world's most cherished prize -- for his 1997 film "A Taste of Cherry." He has also visited the U.S. at least seven times in the last decade. Still, the State Department was reportedly unwilling to bend the harsh new rules recently put into place by the Bush administration restricting the issuance of visas to Iranian citizens.

New York Film Festival spokeswoman Ines Aslan said that festival organizers, along with the two universities involved, tried "very, very hard" to convince officials at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, where Kiarostami had applied for a visa, to make an exception for the filmmaker. "It wasn't that they could not make an exception," Aslan said. "It was that they did not choose to. It is very sad." Officials at the embassy told the festival that they would require at least 90 days to investigate Kiarostami's background -- which is well known to film scholars and fans, and contains little in the way of political activity -- and process the visa paperwork.

So far, neither embassy nor State Department officials have commented to the press on the decision. On one hand, it's true that they are simply applying to Kiarostami the same restrictions that would apply to any Iranian citizen; on the other, immigration authorities in the past have frequently expedited the visa applications of artists, entertainers and other figures of international renown.

To many people working in the arts, both in the U.S. and abroad, the decision will inevitably be seen as symbolizing the Bush administration's perceived disdain for cultural affairs and the left-leaning elite groups concerned with them. Jack Lang, France's former minister of education and culture, for example, has been quoted as saying that the Kiarostami visa denial represented "an intellectual isolationism and ... contempt for other cultures."

In a statement, New York Film Festival director Richard Peña said, "It's a terrible sign of what's happening in my country today that no one seems to realize or care about the kind of negative signal this sends out to the entire Muslim world (not to mention to everyone else)."

Kiarostami himself accepted the decision in a rueful, philosophical manner that will surely seem familiar to fans of his films. In a letter to Peña (excerpted in Variety), he wrote, "I certainly do not deserve an entry visa any more than the aging mother hoping to visit her children in the U.S. perhaps for the last time in her life ... For my part, I feel this decision is somehow what I deserve."

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