The New YorkFilm Festival suffered the loss of yet another top-flight internationaldirector from its 40th anniversary edition as world politicsintruded on the prestigious event.
After learning that Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami hadbeen prevented from attending the festival last week because of US visaproblems, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki decided against flying in to New Yorkfrom Helsinki in a show of cinematic solidarity.
"Under the circumstances I, too, am forced to cancelmy participation -- for if the present government of the United States ofAmerica does not want an Iranian, they will hardly have any use for a Finn,either. We do not even have the oil," said Kaurismaki yesterday.
NYFF programmedirector Richard Pena read out Kaurismaki's e-mailed statement from thestage of the Walter Reade Theatre where the Finn had been due to give a pressconference at noon immediately after the scheduled Monday morning industryscreening of The Man Without A Past. That film won Kaurismaki the Grand Jury Prize and Kati Outinenthe Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Demonstratinghis trademark deadpan wit, Kaurismaki also added a personal message to the USdefense minister Donald Rumsfeld as the war rhetoric over Iraq intensified onthe world stage: "I would like to invite the present US Secretary ofDefense to a visit to Finland. We could take a walk in the woods and pickmushrooms. That might calm him down."
Kiarostami, whowas also scheduled to attend the NYFF last Tuesday to introduce his own film Ten, fell foul of tough new US visaregulations affecting citizens from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Cubaand Libya that are listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism.
Americanconsular authorities in Paris, where Kiarostami applied for a visa about amonth ago in order to attend the NYFF and to also give addresses at bothHarvard University and Ohio State University, informed the 60-year-oldfilmmaker that a full 90 days were first needed in order to verify hisbackground.
That probe wasdeemed necessary despite the fact that he is Iran's most celebrateddirector who has traveled to the US seven times in the last decade includingtwo visits to the NYFF where he was the subject of a retrospective in 1996.Kiarostami's previous films include the Through The Olive Trees, And Life Goes On... and the Palme d'Or-winning The Tasteof Cherry.
The US StateDepartment said Monday that Iranians are subject to an extensive securityreview based on the Enhanced Border Security Act that was approved in May aspart of heightened security measures. The department noted that Kiarostami hadleft himself insufficient time for such a security check to be properly carriedout.
NYFF'sPena, who tried to intercede on Kiarostami's behalf, complained yesterdaythat the rules on granting visas to Iranians were in constant flux, withbackground checks taking anywhere from six weeks to several months to complete.The requirements, he said, had become even stricter for Iranian males sincelast year's terrorist attacks.
"It'sa terrible sign of what's happening in my country today that no one seems torealize or care about the kind of negative signal this sends out to the entireMuslim world (not to mention to everyone else)," Pena was quoted as sayingin reaction to Kiarostami's visa problems.
Also weighing onKiarostami's behalf was Jack Lang, formerly France's Minister of NationalEducation and Culture, who himself had also implored US authorities to changetheir mind through a letter to the American Ambassador in Paris, Howard Leach.Kiarostami's plight illustrated "an intellectual isolationism andan ignorance confining to the contempt for other cultures," said Lang.
Kiarostami isnot the only artist to suffer from the tightening immigration laws. Iranian popsuperstar singer Googoosh, who lives in Canada, cancelled her concert in LosAngeles last weekend after failing to secure a US visa across the border andtwo weeks ago, 22 musicians from Cuba were unable to get visas in time to attendthe Latin Grammys.
Citizens fromothers countries might also start facing increased scrutiny in moves that haveangered human rights activists. This weekend, for example, AP reported that theUS Embassy in Cairo began advising Egyptians traveling to America that they maybe fingerprinted, photographed and questioned on arrival in America for reasonsof national security.
Starting thismonth, men ages 16 to 45 from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen will also requireregistration upon arrival to and departure from the US. They will be asked byImmigration inspectors to explain previous trips to any of the followingcountries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, Saudi Arabia,Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.