Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker and official overseas spokesman for 2009 Iranian presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has won the 2009 Freedom to Create Prize. The only prize of its kind, the Freedom to Create Prize celebrates the use of the arts to drive change and build the foundations of creativity in broken societies. Mr Makhmalbaf was awarded the prize by Bianca Jagger, Founder and Chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, at a high profile London ceremony at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 25 November 2009.
Commenting on his award, Makhmalbaf said, “People of my country (Iran) are killed, imprisoned, tortured and raped just for their votes. Every award I receive means an opportunity for me to echo their voices to the world, asking for democracy for Iran and peace for the world.”Makhmalbaf has written and directed 18 feature films and six short films that have been widely presented in international film festivals over the past 10 years. Time magazine selected his 2001 film, Kandahar, as one of top 100 films of all time. In 2006, he was a juror at the Venice Film Festival.
Following this year’s disputed Iranian elections, Makhmalbaf diverted his attentions from filmmaking to be the voice of defeated presidential candidate Mir-Houssein Moussavi. As police and paramilitaries suppressed peaceful protestors with firearms, batons and pepper spray, and authorities closed universities, banned rallies and blocked websites, Mir-Houssein Moussavi turned to Makhmalbaf for support.
Makhmalbaf’s rise to become leader of the new wave of Iranian cinema came from unlikely beginnings. When he was 15 he formed an underground Islamic militia group and was shot and jailed by the time he was 17. While imprisoned, Makhmalbaf educated himself and underwent an intellectual renaissance afterwhich he distanced himself from violence, believing Iranian society suffers more from cultural poverty than anything else.
His nominating party, ZirZamin, an alternative Iranian media magazine said: “His works were nominated because they promote freedom, understanding, open societies, secular humanism and respect to others. His analysis and depiction tasks people to questions real in everybody’s life and social realism. He is not only a film director but an educationalist, author and analyst.”
Panellist Daniel Barenboim, acclaimed conductor and founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, said of Makhmalbaf: “His voice has been one of the most important artistic contributions from Iran to world culture over the last decades. His films have given international audiences a window into contemporary Iran. His work in Afghanistan, both artistic and humanitarian, has added valuable facets to the understanding of this troubled country.
He has also fostered a new generation of Iranian filmmakers. Last not least, his support for the recent peaceful protests against the stolen Iranian elections made it more difficult for the regime in Tehran to silence the opposition. Especially in view of the deeply unsettling remarks and intentions of President Ahmadi-Nejad, his efforts to publicize dissenting views deserve support.”
The second place prizewinner is Burmese refugee women’s group, The Kumjing Storytellers, who use giant paper maché dolls to represent their stories of ethnic persecution in Burma and the plight of migrants and refugees from around the world. Kumjing, a Tai women’s name meaning ‘precious jewel’, is used to represent the women who have migrated to live and work in the Thai-Burmese border areas. Since July this year, the military regime has renewed a scorched earth campaign in central Shan state that has driven more than 10,000 villagers from their homes.
Troops have burned down over 500 houses, scores of granaries and forcibly relocated almost 40 villages.The women in The Kumjing Storytellers are among those who have fled to the Burma-Thai border region, often leaving their families behind. Not simply an artwork, but a living art action, The Journey of Kumjing is a performance in which these persecuted women can tell their stories, challenge discrimination and assert their human rights. Some 250 paper maché-dolls travel across Thailand and the world to raise awareness of their plight. “The message of the piece is one of courage, hope and inspiration. We want to humanize migrants in the eyes of society,” say the women. The Storytellers also want to inspire society to change the way it thinks and behaves towards ‘outsiders’.
The third place prizewinner is Afghan female artist Sheenkai Alam Stanikzai, who uses video performance, installation and photography to tackle the subjugation and violent persecution of women in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. Stanikzai is one of a generation of Afghans who grew up during the Taliban which censored culture and banned music, and her art explores the re-emergence of Afghan spirit after years of oppression. Her installation piece features the myth Chel Dokhtaraan, a historical event when 40 Afghan women committed suicide by jumping into wells during an invasion. Stanikzai believes these ‘honourable’ deaths are “in the past.” She explains: “What is happening today is that women, more than 40, are dying every day in different circumstances.” Her work symbolizes the violent acts – public executions, floggings, stonings and hangings – that are being perpetrated today against females both in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.
Prize founder and Chairman of Orient Global Richard F. Chandler said he was humbled by the bravery of this year’s winners adding their courage and stories epitomised the daily sacrifices made by artists on frontlines from around the world.
“We celebrate not only the power of art to change lives, but also the bravery of artists who use their work to fight oppression and injustice and create a brighter future for all.
“The winners for the 2009 Freedom to Create Prize are global ambassadors for the power of creativity in building peaceful and prosperous societies.”