News of the death of Celluloid Dreams CEO Hengameh Panahi has sparked an outpouring of admiration and tributes from the independent film community.
Panahi, a pivotal figure in the global arthouse scene, died on November 5, aged 67. In her decades in the business, as a producer, co-financier and sales agent, Panahi introduced the world to international auteurs from Iran (Jafar Panahi, Marjane Satrapi), Europe (Jacques Audiard, François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, Marco Bellocchio, Aleksandr Sokurov, the Dardenne brothers) and across Asia (Takeshi Kitano, Naomi Kawase, Jia Zanghke, Hirokazu Kore-eda).
“She took films that were challenging, that were difficult to make, to sell, to promote, and she fought for them,” says Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor) who knew and worked with Panahi for more than 30 years. “She was a unique part of the film ecosystem. She was really inspirational, with the films that she enabled to be made, and seen.”
Celluloid Dreams, which Panahi founded in 1985, was a pioneer in scouting and promoting international filmmakers, particularly from regions (Asia, the Middle East) that long been ignored by distributors in the West.
Jacques Audiard’s French prison drama A Prophet, Takeshi Kitano’s samurai action comedy The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Marjane Satrapi’s animated autobiography Persepolis, S. Craig Zahler’s violent Western Bone Tomahawk, Todd Haynes’ experimental Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There: There was little that united the Celluloid Dreams line-up, aside from Panahi’s esquisite taste.
“Panahi was ‘the’ sales agent par excellence and has, since the 1980s, pioneered a new way of understanding the exchange and promotion of arthouse films internationally,” says Giona Nazzaro, artistic director at the Locarno Film Festival. “But beyond even that, she is famed for her unparalleled eye in seeking out and supporting nascent projects as a producer. It is to this discerning vision that we owe the discovery and consecration of some of the greatest contemporary auteurs: from Jafar Panahi to Kitano Takeshi, from Jacques Audiard to Jia Zhangke…A new generation of professionals was formed under her close supervision and guidance. We now also count them among the brightest lights in our industry.”
Posting on X shortly after the news of her death, the Locarno festival called Panahi “fierce and an inexhaustible source of inspiration.”
Fierce and an inexhaustible source of inspiration, Hengameh Panahi played a crucial role in the history of cinema and a fundamental part, more than we can imagine, in shaping our own private histories as passionate cinephiles.@GionaNazzaro‘s tribute: https://t.co/OmdTsOnfrm pic.twitter.com/6GTRT6iDFS
— Locarno Film Festival (@FilmFestLocarno) November 9, 2023
The European Producers Club, posting on Thursday, called Panahi “a very important woman who enlightened our industry for decades with her passion and vision. We owe Hengameh Panahi masterpieces and many successes.”
Many highlighted Panahi’s role as a partner and mentor. Famously, after meeting two young, talented but broke animators on a trip to L.A. in the early 1980s, Panahi helped organise a trip for them to attend Brussels’ Anima animation festival. The duo? John Lasseter and Tim Burton.
Though Celluloid Dreams Panahi actively sought out partnerships with other independent producers and distributors to find new ways to finance and release hard-to-market movies.
“When I started MUBI 16 years ago, Hengameh was the first person in the film industry who believed in me,” says Efe Çakarel, who launched his arthouse streaming platform with Panahi’s help. “Her instincts were sharp as a knife. She invested in MUBI (then called “The Auteurs”), joined our board, licensed us her entire library, and mentored me. Her influence and ideas in those early days shaped what MUBI became today. I will miss her greatly.”
“Hengameh’s taste was unparalleled and she was an exceptional sales agent,” wrote indie production and sales group XYZ Films in an email to The Hollywood Reporter following Panahi’s death. In 2012, XYZ formed a foreign sales partnership with Celluloid Dreams in 2012, called Celluloid Nightmares, to produce and distribute arthouse horror movies. “She taught us a lot during the years of our Celluloid Nightmares partnership,” said XYZ. “Hengameh’s passing is a loss for filmmakers and cinema around the world and she will be missed.”
Jeremy Thomas notes that Panahi’s passing comes as the kind of cinema she celebrated and championed has become an endangered species.
“She was a driver of world cinema and for a time that was a very strong business, popular in the movie houses and on DVD but a lot has changed,” he says. “You go to the big festivals, like Toronto, and the screenings are full up, with audiences queuing to see these movies [but] fewer and fewer of them are getting theatrical releases. The marketplace has been greatly reduced [to] the couple of streamers who have taste.”
But, he adds, Panahi would be the last one to give up the fight for independent cinema.
“She was a lifetime fighter and did whatever was needed to stay in the game,” he says. “Above all it was her infectious enthusiasm, and optimism. Most people in the film business are glass half-empty types. Hengameh was always half-full or overflowing.”