In general Panahi has the most legal problems of the three directors as he pushes the limit. He has been detained numerous times and many of his films have been banned in Iran. He loves doing films that criticize the government or stick up for a minority.
Back in 1995 he won a major award with his first feature, "The White Balloon" at Cannes which was the first for an Iranian. Not seen.
Two other of his films I have seen are "The Mirror" and "This is not a film." "The Mirror" followed a very young girl who got lost in Teheran and at one point the actress expresses distaste and refuses to co-operate. Panahi's crew decides to follow her anyway and capture the plight of young girl lost. "This is not a film" might bore those who do not understand the circumstances and perhaps that is what makes it so interesting. He had been confined to house arrest in 2010 awaiting a trial and forbidden to do a film. Using a telephone camera he involves the confines of his apartment including a lizard and a dog. We would not know of the film if he had been unable to smuggle it out on an USB stick buried in a cake.
His next film, "Taxi" has done the film festival circuit and I saw a trailer at the Hamilton AGH International Film Festival. Apparently working around more restrictions on his freedom he is working as taxi driver and talks to his customers using a small camera inside the cab. It will be a few weeks more before I can see it, but am looking forward to it.
Jafar, besides writing and directing has been an editor and as such was involved with "Border Cafe." A widow is pressured to marry her brother in law (who already has a wife) and give up her husband's business. She defies tradition, refusing marriage and renovating her husband's restaurant and cooking in a back kitchen so customers won't know a women is cooking. Her cafe becomes popular, but still the pressure to give it up continues. Kambazia Partovi was a well known script writer doing the directing. We view Muslim countries as suppressing women and these two men remind the outside world and try to raise consciousness.
Jafar Panahi's next movie, "Flowers" will be directed by his son Panah after Jafar's written script won a grant. It is about discrimination against handicapped people in Iran based on real events.
"A Separation" got my and the world's attention a few years later. Roger Ebert rated it not only as the best foreign film of 2011, but also the best picture, period. What I got out of it was the normality of the people. Except for the hijabs worn even indoors the scenery and dialogue was not all that different from what we in the west are used to. Asghar's daughter played a critical role The movie gets your interest and there are a number of twists along the way with a very ambiguous ending.
With some special features on another DVD (with "About Elly") I found the back story very interesting. Asghar said that getting a permit was critical and in some doubt. As the film was nominated for awards it generated a lot of response both in and outside Iran. There was controversy over things I didn't understand, but it broke a few barriers which were admired by some, but not all. A concern was when they learned that Madonna was to award the Golden Globe award for their category. They did win the award. They were also nominated for the best foreign film Oscar as well as best original script.
This was a tense time as Israel was threatening to bomb Iran over its nuclear developments. Another nomination for the Oscar was "Footnote" from Israel (an interesting film in itself). Ex patriots were shown in Canada, the U.S. and Germany following the procedures enthusiastically. Again they did win the award which this time was presented by Sandra Bullock, but due to Iranian protocol no hands were shaken. Asghar spoke in both English and Farsi speaking of Iranians as peace lovers.
Asghar spoke of hindrances to himself and other Iranian filmmakers. He returned home with a bare notice wanting to avoid the government shaping the event. Crowds were frantic with authorties wanting to make as little fuss as possible, but he insisted on going back to the airport after being whisked away to share the honour with his fellow Iranians.
After these two movies it took awhile to become aware of other Iranian movies
"Fireworks Wednesday" was released in 2006 and was a story involving infidelity and showing Iranian society as much like our own for drama and comedy.
Peyman Mohaadi, a prominent actor had been born in US but raised in Iran. He was the male lead in "A Separation" and accepted the Oscar with Asghar He appeared in another Farhadi production, "About Elly" released in 2009. Peyman played a supporting role in this one which was another masterpiece with suspense right through to the end. He starred in "Camp X-Ray" with Kristen Stewart. Set in Guantanamo he was supposedly an Arab.
In 2013 Asghar directed a French film, "The Past" with Tahir Rahim and Berenice Bejo. The movie was a success winning a Cannes award for Berenice as well as himself.
His next movie will star Penelope Cruz, but with few details made public.
Abbas Kiarostami was well established in Iranian film before the other two spanning before and after the Iranian Revolution. He decided to remain in Iran after the Revolution, although other movie people fled. His one Iranian film I saw was "Taste of Cherry" about a man who plans a suicide. I then saw two other films not realizing his connections one Japanese language set in Tokyo, "Like Someone in Love" and another in Italy, in French, English and Italian, "Certified Copy" with Juliette Binoche. Both he and Juliette won awards at Cannes for that one. He served as a mentor to Jafar Panahi, co-writing "The White Balloon," but his own Cannes awards came two years after Panahi's.
What I got out of watching these Iranian movies is that Iran has a few problems that merit fixing, but we are not quite perfect either. The other thing I get is that the people are not a whole lot different than we are and Iran has a lot to offer the rest of the world. Some earlier thoughts on the Persian culture: http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/10/my-three-persian-experiences.html