CANNES, France (Reuters) - Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami said on Tuesday his government's imprisonment of colleague Jafar Panahi is "intolerable," and that film-makers and art in general are under attack in his home country.
Kiarostami, debuting his "Copie Conforme" ("Certified Copy") in competition at the Cannes film festival, said that for decades independent filmmakers in Iran have faced obstacles created by a government seeking to control their work.
"The fact that a filmmaker has been imprisoned is, in itself, intolerable," Kiarostami said at a festival news conference, through an interpreter.
"Jafar Panahi was inclined to make his film under clandestine, illegal circumstances, but that's not his responsibility alone. The responsibility is that of the authorities who prevent him from carrying out his profession.
"So when a filmmaker -- an artist -- is imprisoned, it is art as a whole which is attacked, and it is against this that we should react," Kiarostami added.
Panahi, a maker of films that examine social issues in the Islamic Republic, was a supporter of Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi in last year's disputed election that saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retain power.
On March 1, Panahi and family members were held by Iranian security guards at his home, and since then Panahi has been in prison. Officials have confirmed the arrest but said it was not politically motivated, yet reports have said he was making an anti-government film which Panahi's son has denied.
"If the Iranian government continues to refuse to release Jafar -- if Jafar remains in jail -- then at least we need explanations," Kiarostami said. "Because I don't understand how a film can be considered to be a crime, particularly when a film has not been made."
Prominent filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and others have petitioned for Panahi's release, and French government ministers also asked that he be freed so that he could attend the Cannes festival.
Panahi won the Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes for his 1995 movie, "White Balloon," and was to sit on the 2010 film jury.
On Sunday, a report on Mousavi's website said Iranian security officers went to Panahi's house and threatened his family members with arrest if they spoke to the media.
Indeed, as his Cannes film festival news conference began, Kiarostami said he had been asked to call Panahi's wife in Tehran, but was unable to get through.
One reporter asked Kiarostami about speculation Panahi was on a hunger strike. The director could not confirm such a protest, but talk of a hunger strike caused the star of Copie Conforme, French actress Juliette Binoche who was sitting next to Kiarostami, to shed a tear.
"The Iranian government has been trying to create obstacles which are placed in the way of independent filmmakers, he said. "That is a situation we have had to live with for 40 years,"
Copie Conforme is not likely to create a controversy within any government. Set in Italy, it tells of a man (William Shimell) and woman (Binoche) who initially seem to be mere acquaintances but, it is later revealed, may be married.
In fact, it is never entirely clear if they are a couple, and the movie challenges audiences to decide if their marital status -- whether real or a copy of reality -- is even important to how we judge them as people.
"The value of a human being depends very much on how you look at it," Kiarostami said.
Editing by Steve Addison