Update (at bottom): Celebrated director on hunger strike

Auteur/colleague Abbas Kiarostami blasts Iranian government's crackdown on artists

CANNES, France � Iran's Abbas Kiarostami premiered his new film at Cannes Tuesday and used the festival to slam his government's crackdown on artists and call for the release of jailed director Jafar Panahi.

"When a film-maker, an artist is imprisoned it is art as a whole that is attacked," he told reporters after a press screening of his "Certified Copy," starring French actress Juliette Binoche.

The new movie by Kiarostami, who took the Palme d'Or top prize at Cannes in 1997 but whose films are censored in Iran, is his first work shot in Europe.

The bleak tale of an English writer's tortuous relationship with an art dealer won enthusiastic applause at a packed press screening ahead of Tuesday's red carpet premiere.

The writer, played by opera singer William Shimell -- in his first film role -- goes to Italy to give a lecture about the relationship between the real and the fake in art.

He has an ambiguous encounter with a gallery owner, played by Binoche, in a typically elliptical Kiarostami plot which sees the pair confront the harsh realities and illusions of marriage.

"Certified Copy" is one of 19 movies in the race for the Palme d'Or to be handed out Sunday by the festival jury led by "Alice in Wonderland" director Tim Burton.

Jailed director Panahi, who won a Cannes award in 1995 for "The White Balloon" and scooped the Venice film festival's top gong in 2000 for "The Circle," had been invited to join the Cannes jury.

But the film-maker, a vocal backer of Iran's opposition movement, has been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since March 1.

He was detained, according to Iran's culture minister, for making an "anti-regime" film about the unrest that rocked the country last year after the disputed presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

"The fact that a film-maker has been imprisoned is in itself intolerable," said Kiarostami at Tuesday's press conference.

"If the Iranian government continues to refuse to release Jafar... then we need explanations because I can't understand how a film can be considered to be a crime particularly when that film has not yet been made," he said.

Kiarostami was adding his voice to a growing chorus of calls from politicians and film-makers across the world -- including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and Oliver Stone -- for the release of Panahi.

Kiarostami complained that for the past four decades "the Iranian government has been trying to place obstacles in the way of independent filmmakers."

His previous film, "Shirin," is made up of 90 minutes of close-ups of the faces of around 100 women -- among them a headscarved Binoche -- as they watch a film based on a 12th-century Persian love poem.

Despite several Iranian movies winning awards at prestigious international festivals since 2005, when hardline President Ahmadinejad first came to power, movie-makers complain about increased pressure and censorship.

Even under the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, when artists enjoyed relative liberty, Kiarostami's feature films "Ten" (2002) and "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999) were banned from Iranian theatres.

Cannes has encouraged other independent Iranian directors in the past.

It screened the animated film "Persepolis", about coming of age in the Islamic republic, which won the jury prize in 2007, and "Nobody Knows About The Persian Cats" last year.

Both films prompted angry condemnation from Iran's hardline authorities.

Update: Celebrated director on hunger strike

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has gone on a hunger strike to protest against the conditions of his detention, an opposition website reported on Tuesday.

"In a brief phone call from Evin prison he announced his hunger strike," the director's wife, Tahereh Saeedi told Rahesabz website, which champions the anti-government cause of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

His wife said the controversial film-maker did not want to turn into a "guinea pig under torture" and called for "contact with family, access to a lawyer after 77 days and unconditional freedom until a trial."

"In the end I swear to the cinema that I believe in that I will not give up my hunger strike and my only demand is that they hand over my body to my family to bury wherever they want," he was quoted as saying.

Panahi is expected to remain in jail for another two months, his wife told the website.