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Almost perfect
Jafar Panahi’s feminist triumph


The ban in Iran

Filmmakers around the world confront the same issues that Hollywood has to contend with: lack of money, lack of talent, production snags. In many countries, however, cinematic artists face an even bigger hurdle: governments that exercise regulatory control over film content. To Live, Zhang Yimou’s 1994 epic chronicle about China in social-political transition, was banned in his homeland — though it’s been seen by Western audiences. Now with The Circle, an indictment of Iran’s oppression of women, filmmaker Jafar Panahi has suffered a similar fate. The film won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival but has yet to be shown publicly on Iranian soil.

" I would very much like to have people in my country see the film; it makes me sad, " says the director. Panahi made The Circle in response to his two earlier films, The Mirror and The White Balloon, both of which were about young female protagonists. " I wanted to see what they would be like as adults. Would they be as bold? There would be more restrictions on them and they would be less innocent. They would be aware and have knowledge of the controls around them — the circle of restriction that they are caught in and cannot escape. That’s what I wanted to explore, and the idea came together after I read about a woman who committed suicide after killing her two children and I began to contemplate the reasons why, because the paper made no such notation about a motive. "

To make the film, Panahi had to find his own funding. " There are two types of films in Iran, propaganda films, like films about the Iran-Iraq war that are financed by the government, and private films that are made on bank loans. These either are made for commercial profit or are arthouse films about human interest like mine. I made The Circle with money I had made from my first two films, and I got help co-producing it with the Italian company that had picked up my other films. "

Throughout the process Panahi had to get government approval at regular checkpoints. " When I first wrote the film and submitted it for review, I did not hear back for a long time, many months. And then they let me make the film, and when I was done, I gave them a print, and again I did not hear from them. " At that juncture Panahi became fearful that no audience, national or international, would see his film, but then a fortunate sequence of events occurred. " We have this festival called Fajr, which is a big deal in my country and many people come to it, and when I couldn’t show it there, I took some of my friends, associates, and fans from other countries to my house and showed it to them. One of them, from the Venice Film Festival, where it took top honors, said they had to show it, and the government, believing that a copy of the film had made it out of the country, allowed it to be shown [in Venice] with only three days to go, but it is still not permitted to be shown in my country. "

Given his penchant for such provocative subjects, does Panahi see himself as a political filmmaker or a feminist? " My films are humanistic, though many have said they are political and I can understand that, but I am an artist trying to shed light, to enlighten, to jolt the mind, I am not political, I am not going to change the world, I am just showing things. As for being a feminist, my films are about daily struggle, not just about women, but for all people, they could be about men, too. "

Last month, however, on April 15, Panahi was detained by police during a layover at New York’s JFK airport. Although details of the incident remain unclear, he maintains that he was humiliated, denied requests for an interpreter, and then, many hours later, led back onto a plane in shackles. In an open letter, the director returned the (American) Freedom of Expression Award and challenged the awarding board and the " US media " to " dare to condemn the savage acts of American Police/Immigration Officers. " Like his films, the letter appears to be just another intrepid act of a nonpolitical person.

By Tom Meek

Iran is the hotbed of feminist filmmaking in the world today. That might seem a dubious assertion about a country ruled by a patriarchal, fundamentalist theocracy, but when you compare Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman and Jafar Panahi’s The Circle with, say, Bridget Jones’s Diary, it’s not much of a contest. If it’s any consolation, Panahi’s film has been banned in his native land, and you could say that it succeeds mostly as an indictment of a particular society and culture. On the other hand, the injustice and oppression it depicts is not necessarily less prevalent in the West, only more insidious. Sexism isn’t limited to Iran; I wonder, however, whether such excellence in filmmaking is.

Panahi is best known in this country for his sublime 1995 debut feature The White Balloon and his delightful 1997 The Mirror, in which he explored volatile social issues by means of a deceptively simple children’s story. In The Circle, which won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Fest, Panahi’s female protagonists are grown up. The first sound in the film, heard over a black screen and credits, is a woman moaning in labor. The screen turns into the white of a door in a maternity ward that slides open to reveal the smiling face of a nurse informing a woman that her daughter has given birth to a beautiful girl. The woman is not overjoyed; instead she passes the bad news to another woman, who flees down the spiral of a staircase to the street pursued by Panahi’s fluid handheld camera.

Panahi drops this narrative thread for a time and focuses instead on a trio of distraught women outside, and so the pattern of the film is set, a La ronde of chador-clad heroines, shown most often in flight or cowering behind parked cars, each different and wrenchingly sympathetic but all doomed to the same vicious circle of oppression and despair. It doesn’t seem to matter which woman’s trail the camera picks up on this single day in a labyrinthine Tehran: each will end in the same prison of patriarchal injustice.

The three whose stories dominate are true prisoners: they either are on leave or have escaped — it’s unclear which — from incarceration for unspecified crimes and are desperately trying to fulfill some pathetic personal mission. Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh) is a teenager who hopes to return to the paradise of her country home but hasn’t got the bus fare. Her older pal Arezou (Mariam Palvin Almani), whose dreams seem to have been reduced to finding some place where a woman can smoke a cigarette in peace, scores the money for Nargess by some dubious means (she climbs the circular stairway in a factory and disappears into a back room with the boss) but refuses to go along with her innocent friend because she “couldn’t bear to find out that her paradise didn’t exist.” Other obstacles will come between Nargess and her journey, but if only in her frank, almost unnaturally wide-eyed gaze (which despite her frantic state takes in such sights as a good-looking guy in a business suit, a painting of her native village, and items in store windows), she has asserted her independence and dignity.

No such luck for the third woman, Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orafai), whose face is twisted into a permanent worried frown, and with good reason. Brutally thrown out of her home by her father and brothers upon her return, she is seeking to abort the baby conceived when she was allowed to spend the night with her fiancé before his execution. She begs for help from an old cellmate who has buried her past, become a nurse, and married a doctor. Pari wears black, her friend wears white, and the resultant dialogue is a lacerating condemnation of hypocrisy, helplessness, and righteousness. Pari too is left to her own meager devices and sent into the night, where her own plight serves as the introduction to still others.

The Circle calls to mind the Italian neo-realists with its hardscrabble vérité tone, but on closer examination it draws on the melodramatic artifice of a Douglas Sirk. At times the formal design can be of an almost too rigorous elegance: the interplay of black and white; the circularity of image and camera movement; the sliding door of the beginning and end that provides a literal framing device; the neat tying together of narrative threads. What a nice change, though, to be able to criticize a film for being too perfect. Heartrending and inspired but never manipulative — a scene with a little girl in a red hat will break your heart — The Circle is an eloquent condemnation of oppression and a vindication both of the human spirit and of the art of film.

Issue Date: May 10-17, 2001

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