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Juliette Binoche at Cannes: Promoting a New Movie and Fighting for an Imprisoned Friend

There may not be a more composed, sophisticated, and veteran actress at Cannes than Juliette Binoche. So it was quite a shock to see her crying on the stage of her press conference for Copie Conforme (Certified Copy), a mysterious, subtle romance shot in Tehran in which she and actor William Shimell are directed by Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami. The question that prompted her tears regarded the status of Kiarostami's good friend, Iranian director Jafar Panahi (whose most recent, exceptional film Offside follows female Iranian soccer fans who sneak into a match and get nabbed). Panahi couldn’t make it to Cannes to serve on a jury because he is currently under house arrest for working on a film the Iranian government felt was too political. The situation is quickly becoming an international incident: Panahi just began a hunger strike in Iran, and Binoche is doing everything she can to raise his profile in the hopes that the government won’t do worse to him. We spoke to Binoche about the exceptional experience of filming in Iran, and why she is fighting to save Panahi.

Clearly the house arrest of Jafar Panahi weighs on you. How did you meet him?
I met with him in Tehran when I went there [to shoot Copie Conforme], and he was actually going to be helping with the film just as a friend, that’s why I met with him as well. The fact that he’s in prison now is overwhelming, and we’re trying to do our best here without doing too much so it doesn’t block a possible opening door, but at the same time it’s a very firm statement. No artist should be imprisoned in their own country. The country needs the artists and intellectuals in order to have a point of view. If it’s only the political view, then it’s impoverished and false … So we’re very much in pain. At the same time, the Cannes festival chose to take him as a symbolic jury member, and needed to, because I think it is so meaningful and important for the art, to fight for freedom and put light on the subject. In Iran, an Iranian director like Abbas is so internationally recognized and is able to shoot outside of his country — he’s also political, but in a very subtle way — and he is so important to other Iranian artists and the people there. [By making his films] Abbas is able to draw more of a contrast with the other elements inside his country.

What do you think can really be done for Panahi?
Well, the fact that we recognized him as being imprisoned in our press conference this morning, now it’s on the Internet, and you can read the letters by Abbas and Iranian artists and directors talking about him. These are very important deeds because then it means that you cannot kill somebody like this knowing that everyone in the international community knows and is watching. It would be a very strong diplomatic action that would cause a lot of turmoil.

How did you decide to work with Kiarostami?

We had met in several circumstances and one of them was in Cannes, just seeing each other sometimes I would say I would love to make a film with him, I’ve loved his films, and he would just answer, "Come to Tehran." And I was a little taken aback because I thought, "Oh, the Middle East and the Western world, we’re not really best friends at the moment" —l it was during the nuclear conflict. But I said no, I should go and see for myself what’s going on there … I knew he was shooting with non-actors and I didn’t speak Farsi, you know, I speak a little bit of English, so it was sort of a dream that was impossible. But somehow it was a natural friendship we shared together.

What was that based on?
A very close sensibility and loving talking and laughing together and being philosophical at the same time. I had this sort of same closeness with [director Krzysztof Kieslowski] that is beyond being actor and director. It’s more about human beings, about friendship.

When I went to Tehran, we took pictures together and I love learning from him. He said to me once, we were in his car driving, and he said, ‘I feel comfortable because I don’t feel I need to speak with you’ — you know, to fill up time to make you feel good.

I’ve always wondered how he directs, because he works with so many non-actors.
I would say that his frame is really his choice, and where he’s really active and determined, but after that it’s in the actors’ realm to make it alive and see landscapes through him. I felt my body, my face, had to be a landscape. He loves filming landscapes, so it had to be like winds and rain and sunshine and different lights, but my main concern was, no editing: just life, truthful. It’s no bullshit, like [all the director has to do is ask], "You want it? You have it." There was no fear.

You’re more fearful when you don’t trust the director as much?
If you don’t trust, you have to invent that trust, otherwise you cannot act — unless the character likes not trusting. But otherwise, you cannot work without trust because it has to be full heart. Otherwise it’s not art; it’s manipulation, and for me it’s boring, it's dingy.

Do you have a first memory of being here at the festival?
That was with Rendez-vous [in 1985] with André Téchiné. What I remember, I was taken by the enthusiasm from the journalists mostly, the critics, because that’s how I felt there; it was one-to-one so I could see the repercussions. When you act, you don’t know what you gave. You kind of sense something that went through you, but you don’t know how it was received because it’s so close to you somehow — it’s still blurry. What I remember mainly was the joy of sharing and being in awe of a situation that was totally new to me.

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images