"I firmly declare that in protest against the illegal and inhumane behavior of the judicial and security apparatus and their hostage-taking, I have started a hunger strike since the morning of the 12th of Bahman (February 1)," wrote Panahi in a statement released by the filmmaker's wife, Tahereh Saeedi, and his son, Panah Panahi, on their Instagram accounts Wednesday evening, as first reported by film news site Deadline.
"I will refuse to eat and drink any food and medicine until the time of my release. I will remain in this state until perhaps my lifeless body is freed from prison," added the director, who is detained in Iran's notorious Evin prison.
Panahi was arrested in July 2022 in Tehran and ordered to serve a six-year sentence for "propaganda against the system" that had been suspended after he served two months in 2010.
His jailing came after the Golden Bear-winning director questioned the recent arrest of fellow filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad — who on social media had called on their country's security forces to lay down their weapons during mass protests.
Iran's Supreme Court then invalidated Panahi's arrest in October, as the sentence had already passed Iran's 10-year statute of limitations period and was no longer applicable.
It was expected last week that the acclaimed filmmaker would be released on bail pending a retrial, but Iranian authorities have blocked his liberation process until now, which "is only an excuse for repression," Panahi told Deadline.
"By law, he should immediately be released on bail and his case reviewed again," his lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told AFP.
Meanwhile, Rasoulof was already released from prison on January 7 after being granted a two-week furlough for health reasons, Nikbakht said.
Jina Mahsa Amini's death followed initial crackdown
Since 2010, Panahi has been banned from leaving Iran and from filmmaking and even writing scripts for 20 years.
Nonetheless, he has since directed five award-winning films by stealth, including his latest, the semi-autobiographical "No Bears" that won the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival last October.
Ahead of the "No Bears" premiere in Venice, a protest on the red carpet led by Jury President Julianne Moore called for the release of its director. In a letter sent from prison, Panahi thanked supporters for "making noise" about the locking up of artists, but warned that the crackdown will continue.
The protests and subsequent wave of repression began when the Iranian regime tightened the hijab laws for women. The policy arguably led to the death of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Jina Mahsa Amini, on September 17 while in the custody of morality police — she had been picked up for not wearing the hijab correctly.
Amini's suspected murder was the trigger for subsequent and continuing mass protests that Panahi has also supported from prison.
More than 500 protesters have been killed in the crackdown since September 17, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran, and over 18,000 people have been detained.
Panahi's son Panah Panahi believes his father has been locked up as a warning to others.
"They want to keep the other artists silent by imprisoning Jafar," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "In general, this regime tries to imprison, from every field, a thought leader who is concerned about Iran and protests to serve as an example to others to keep their mouths shut."
Worldwide success after local repression
Jafar Panahi has been targeted by authorities since his 1995 feature film debut "The White Balloon" won the Camera d'Or at Cannes.
Iran's clerics tried to have the film withdrawn when it was selected as the country's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and forbade Panahi from attending the Sundance Film Festival to promote the film. "The White Balloon" would be his first and last film to screen in Iranian cinemas.
But while living as an exile in his own land, Panahi's work is celebrated around the world.
He won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 for "The Circle," which depicts the lone struggles of four Iranian women, and a Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlinale for "Taxi."
Shot entirely in a car, "Taxi" was a typically subversive way of allowing the banned filmmaker to shine a light on Iran through his single camera lens.
With "No Bears," named one of the top 10 films of 2022 by the New York Times, Panahi shot the film in an isolated village on the Turkish border.
"It's not easy to make a movie to begin with, but to make it secretly is very difficult, especially in Iran where a totalitarian government has such tight control over the country and spies everywhere,'' Iranian film scholar and documentary-maker Jamsheed Akrami, told AP. "It's really a triumph. I can't compare him with any other filmmaker.''
An Iranian voice of conscience
But while Panahi has quietly gone about his work in the face of a 20-year filmmaking ban extended to speaking to the media, he hasn't been afraid to stand up for freedom of expression — and especially women's rights.
Panahi received his current prison sentence in 2010 after expressing support for mass protests following the election of far-right leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term.
Panahi's border-crossing 2018 film, "Three Faces," is a window into the life of an outlawed and marginalized former actress that won best screenplay at the Cannes film festival in 2018.
By calling out female repression in Iran in earlier films like "The Circle," Panahi's filmography prophesied the women-led protests that are now gripping Iran.
"Panahi here unearths the everyday sexism of the country, of what it is like to be a woman in a society dominated by men," wrote one reviewer of "The Circle."
"A memorable and devastating indictment of the oppression facing many women in Iran," said the Washington Post of the film.
Meanwhile in "Taxi," the filmmaker, who plays the driver, talks to his young niece about the morality police and censorship.
'Circles of restrictions' in Iran and beyond
Yet Panahi ultimately wants to document a universal repression suffered also by men — and people beyond Iran.
Referring to the narrow options for women in his film "The Circle," Panahi said in an interview after its release that men have less constraints but are also restricted.
"Men live in the same restrictive circles women do, but maybe theirs are circles with a wider radius compared to those of women," he said. "I believe that not only in Iran but all over the world, people live in circles of restrictions," he added.