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Canada Council Film Project held by Customs

Part of a video installation created by Iranian-born filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi under a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts has been detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) on the basis that it violates a ban on imports from Iran. Foroughi has filed an appeal with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) arguing that the piece falls under the personal effects exemption to the sanctions, but time may be running out. The item has been in storage at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport since the end of last month, and the warehouse operator says it can only keep it for 30 days before returning it to the CBSA for destruction.

A Viewing Box is at the Center of the Issue

The piece at issue is a shahre farang, which is a type of viewing box that was used for traditional peep shows in Iran and surrounding countries in the days before motion pictures. Usually constructed of metal to look like ornate miniature buildings complete with the domes and minarets of Persian architecture, shahre farang were taken from town to town to display stories from the Arabian Nights and other favorites.

Foroughi was planning to use hers to show videos contrasting the lives of women in Iran and the Western world. But when she went to the airport to claim it, she was informed that she could not do so due to the Iran Regulations of the Special Economic Measures Act. The filmmaker, who is a permanent resident of Canada, says that she explained that the shahre farang was not for commercial use, but was told by a CBSA employee, “I don’t care, for me you’re an Iranian. You can stay here until tomorrow, my answer will be the same.”

Foroughi describes that as “immensely upsetting”; her lawyer, Vincent Valai, describes it as “abusive” and incomprehensible, noting that the shahre farang is a work of art that Foroughi created for the Canadian public over the course of two years. Valai argues that the piece is exempt from the import ban because it is not a commercial article as there was to be no fee for viewing the installation. He has a letter from the Canada Council to back him up: the Crown corporation states that it provided funds to Foroughi as an independent artist not affiliated with for-profit film or television.

Harper Believes That Sanctions on Iran have Helped

Importing goods from Iran has been generally prohibited since May 29, 2013, and the Harper government believes the sanctions have helped push that country to moderate its stance on its nuclear weapons program. Personal effects are supposed to be exempt from the import ban, but DFATD spokesman Jean-Bruno Villeneuve says that whether any given item qualifies is a legal question and has not commented specifically on the status of Foroughi’s shahre farang. Attorney Valai suggests that it would be helpful for the DFATD to provide more concrete guidelines on how the sanctions are to be enforced.

The CBSA also refused to comment on the case, although spokeswoman Jacqueline Roby said that any misbehavior or lack of professionalism on the part of a CBSA employee would be investigated and dealt with appropriately.

Meanwhile, the 30-day deadline is drawing closer and Foroughi has been paying $105 a day of her own money to have the shahre farang kept at the airport.