Sovereign of the Week: Jafar Panahi (Iranian Film-maker now in jail)

The acclaimed Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi has been sentenced to six years in prison, his lawyer says. Farideh Gheirat said Mr Panahi had been convicted of working against the Iranian system, the semi-official Isna news agency reported.

She said her client had also been banned from making films, writing scripts and travelling abroad. Another Iranian film-maker, Mohammad Rasulov, also received a six-year sentence on similar charges. “Mr Panahi has been sentenced to six years in jail on a charge of (participating) in a gathering and carrying out propaganda against the system,” said Ms Gheirat.

He has also been banned from making films, writing any kind of scripts, travelling abroad and talking to local and foreign media for 20 years.” She described the sentence as “heavy” and said her client would be appealing.

According to a statement released in Italy in November, Mr Panahi had gone on trial in Iran accused of making a film without permission and inciting opposition protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election that led to months of political turmoil. In his statement to the court, Mr Panahi said he was a victim of injustice and called one of the charges against him “a joke”, Reuters news agency reported.

Hunger strike

Mr Rasulov was making a film with Mr Panahi before his arrest. His lawyer, Iman Mirzadeh, said he planned to appeal. Mr Panahi spent more than two months in custody after being arrested in March, before being released on bail after going on hunger strike in protest against his detention.

The Iranian authorities maintained that his arrest was not political.

Mr Panahi has been a vocal critic of Iran’s strict Islamic law and government system, while his films are known for their social commentary. He is a winner of many international awards, most recently for his film Offside, which won the 2006 Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear award.

He was due to be acting as a member of the jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in France. He was also prevented from attending the latest Venice film festival in September.


Zhang Hongtu: China’s Andy Warhol

Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Hongtu, famed for his iconic Mao Quaker Oats images and for subverting traditional icons, takes on China’s greatest burden today — environmental pollution and the downside of development.


Two paintings from Long Live Chairman Mao series (1989

Last Banquet, by Zhang Hongtu (1989)

Mao Dang Lao, in cast bronze (2002) 

Left: Original 12th century painting by Ma Yuan. Right: The same view in Zhang Hongtu’s modern water-pollution series (2009)

Recently Zhang has focused on painting China’s polluted landscapes, using news reports and photographs as inspiration. As he explains, dyes from textile factories dumped into rivers across China turns waters a lurid purple. “There is something beautiful in the color,” he says, “but there is also something wrong with the beauty.”

FP Magazine: China 2013- The Return of Politically Charged Science Fiction in China

In the euphoric Beijing of 2013, Starbucks is Chinese-owned and called “Starbucks Wangwang.” Its trademark drink is Longjing Latté, named for a famed Chinese tea. It is a place where Mr. Chen, an immigrant from Hong Kong, feels comfortable escorting a marginalized woman named Xiaoxi, the secret love of his youth. After running into Xiaoxi in a Beijing bookstore, their first encounter in many years, Mr. Chen asks her whether she had gone abroad. “No,” she replies. “No is good,” Chen nods. “As everyone says, no place is better than China nowadays.”

“You are joking,” Xiaoxi says. Her sullen mood seems at odds with the jubilant crowd around them. As she suddenly departs, he notices two men smoking nearby who have been following her. So opens an early scene from The Prosperous Time: China 2013, a hotly controversial Chinese science-fiction novel. Written by 58-year-old Hong Kong novelist Chen Guanzhong, who has lived and worked in Beijing for much of his life, China 2013 presents an ambivalent vision of China’s near future: outwardly triumphant (a Chinese company has even bought out Starbucks), and yet tightly controlled. There is a mood of mounting tension, here evident as a woman with dissenting thoughts is followed by secret police.

The novel, first published in Hong Kong in late 2009, caused quite a stir on Chinese websites early this year. For instance, Hecaitou, one of the most influential bloggers in the country, wrote in January that the book “once and for fall settles the majority of Internet quarrels” on what China’s tomorrow will be like. At the time, the book was only available in Hong Kong. But after interest grew apace in Chinese cyberspace, the author himself “pirated” his rights from his own publisher in Hong Kong to let Chinese mainlanders read it online for free. Since February, numerous digital versions of the novel have circulated and sparked heated discussions on the Chinese Internet.

The significance — and uniqueness — of the novel is that it is a work of social science fiction, a subgenre that has become virtually nonexistent since the establishment of the People’s Republic. Such keen reader interest in visions of China’s political future is remarkable — and reveals a pent-up appetite among readers. Take a look at recent issues of the popular Chinese Sci-Fi World magazine, published in Chengdu, or at Internet rankings of today’s most-read Chinese sci-fi stories, and you’ll find every kind of plotline you might find in Western sci-fi literature — time travel, space voyage, robot battles, you name it — but social or political criticism, as you might read in books like George Orwell’s 1984, is almost completely lacking. 

 Lao She, one of the most important Chinese writers of the last century, published his only science-fiction novel as serial installments in a magazine (called Cat Country). The story is set on Mars. Although it was published 13 years before Orwell’s Animal Farm, the political satire functions in similar fashion, with intrigues among a colony of cats on Mars serving as criticism of  contemporary political reality in China. Cat Country was so popular among readers that it was reprinted seven times over the course of 17 years until 1949. Under Communist rule, however, the book disappeared from shelves, and any social or political criticism content in new sci-fi works disappeared along with it. Mao Zedong’s official literary policy was that “literature and art serve [his] politics.” As a dystopian novel, Cat Country  was politically incorrect, and in August 1966, Lao She was publicly denounced and beaten by the Red Guards. Not long after, he committed suicide.

I grew up in the western city of Chongqing in the 1960s and 1970s, an avid fan of Lao She’s less controversial works. I had never heard of Cat Country until years after the Cultural Revolution. Following Mao’s death, much Western literature and philosophy were introduced in China for the first time. I still vividly remember the excitement among my friends in 1980s as we vied with each other for copies of translated books such as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Dennis Meadows et al.’s The Limits to Growth and Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. In 1985, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World first became widely available to Chinese readers. (Reportedly, the earliest Chinese translation of 1984 was published in 1979 in a limited-circulation Communist Party magazine to provide “references for the leadership comrades.”)

It was around the late 1970s and early 1980s that some Chinese sci-fi writers became bold enough to embed reflections on domestic events such as the Cultural Revolution in their stories. For a while, it seemed that social sci-fi might reestablish itself as a literary subgenre in China. That hope, however, was extinguished in 1983, when Deng Xiaoping launched a “clean up spiritual pollution” campaign against writers, in effect clamping down again on freedom of thought.

The most surprising turn in the plot is that, as the reader eventually discovers, the public’s selective memory loss turns out not to have been induced by the government. It is a voluntary memory loss. This unexpected twist is a brilliant stroke from the author; it provokes hard questions not only about the government but about popular complacency in China. Equally sharp and biting is the author’s portrait of China’s intellectual elite indulging in the carefree “prosperous time,” willingly letting go of the unpleasant past and their critical spirit.

The book’s author has said that the novel is essentially more “realism” than science fiction. Its ending is pessimistic. When the truth seekers interrogate He Dongsheng, the Politburo member, they lose control of the conversation, which effectively becomes a monologue by the official. The interrogators can muster only feeble rebuttals to his claim that “the one-party capitalist-socialist autocracy is today’s China’s best option.” The novel evokes the dark side of the one-party autocracy, yet its heroes seem to be overwhelmed by He’s eloquent policy speech.

This might well be the novel’s message: Paradoxically, it’s the Chinese public’s aversion to political upheavals and desire for a better economic life that enables the government to operate with impunity.

Steve McCurry: Photos from Around the World

Photographer Steve McCurry is perhaps best known for his picture of the green eyed Afghan girl who stared out from the front page of National Geographic in the 1980s, yet his portfolio is crammed with powerful colour shots from around the globe.

Photo by Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

“You know the thing that was so astonishing about these coal miners in Afghanistan, they go underground for 12 hours a day, they go in six o’clock in the morning and when the sun’s setting they come back out. They’ve been breathing coal dust all day long, there’s no protective gear except this sort of flimsy helmet. But the first thing this man did when he came out to the ground, after breathing all this coal dust, is light up a cigarette. And I just found it so amazing.”

Photo by Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

“I had photographed these fishermen with this very unique way of fishing from the shore and after a while I realised that to get the best angle was to join them, so I had to wade into the water up to my waist. It’s such a strange and wonderful way they fish perched on this pole, which is jammed on this coral reef, and they sit there for a couple of hours in the morning, and then couple of hour in the late afternoon, and I was amazed with how much fish they can actually catch.

Photo by Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

” I was riding through the desert on a taxi in Rajasthan, when suddenly out of nowhere this dust storm kind of whipped up, and within seconds the sky had gone dark, and this really strong wind was blowing.   “I looked off into this field and saw these women dressed in very colourful clothes, huddled together protecting themselves from the wind, and they were singing. I literally opened the door, dashed out, ran across this field and I shot I guess 15 or 20 exposures and made to or three what I felt really good pictures. And then, just as quickly as this dust storm started it stopped, and the whole thing was over and they just went back to work. The whole thing lasted no more than two minutes.”

Photo by Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

“I’ve been going back to this visual ancient quarter of Jodhpur for probably 20 years, and I know that area very well, I must have photographed every street. It was a major thoroughfare with people coming and going. I was photographing people coming towards me and away from me and there were a number of really interesting pictures. In fact I went back there the next day. And as I was editing, I realised that one of these pictures which I hadn’t really remembered taking was one of this boy running and I caught him in kind of mid-leap, it just had this kind of wonderful decisive moment to it. I was very pleased with that picture.”

Emerging affordable, modular, eco-efficient housing hits Ghana

Designed by Lisbon-based Blaanc in collaboration with Architect João Caeiro, Emerging Ghana is a plan for an eco-affordable single family house for the emerging middle class of Ghana. The design recently won first place in the international design competition Open Source House, a non-profit organization that aims to provide better, more sustainable housing in low-income countries. Emerging Ghana is modular single-family home design to be built with local materials, local labor, and with all the best sustainable design strategies you can imagine, all for a low cost of about $12,500 USD.