Jafar Panahi: Why Make a Film?

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NB. This piece was written in 2010 for a project that never quite got off the ground due to a convergence of unhappy circumstances. However, meeting and talking with the instigators of said project was a happy occasion. What you’re about to read was written immediately after Panahi was sentenced. It is presented here with minimal tinkering, and consequently doesn’t deal with his more recent films. A planned companion piece about Mohammed Rasoulouf’s work never materialised.

Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rasoulof’s prison sentences and creative silencing will no doubt be a source of little surprise to those familiar with Iran’s present regime. Nor will it shock those old enough to remember past, perhaps analogous situations, such as the repeated attempts by the Soviet authorities to imprison and silence Sergei Paradzhanov. Cinema’s ability to tie wide-ranging social, psychological and – ultimately – human abstractions into tightly bound knots, and the medium’s capacity to be widely distributed and easily understood, has rarely gone unnoticed by bureaucrats, theocrats and other authoritarians.

Sergei Paradzhanov once told his fellow filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky – “If your art is lacking something, it’s that you need to spend at least one year in a Soviet prison camp.” No doubt there was something ludic about this remark, but for Panahi and Rasoulof, in a regime where honest images are rare, the humour might be lost. In the light of these recent ugly events I offer a brief critical appraisal of Panahi’s work up until his arrest in 2010.

Panahi’s debut feature The White Balloon (1995) helped to develop international interest in Iranian film.[1] Looking back at the film today, it is a work heavily indebted to its scriptwriter, the formidable Abbas Kiarostami, displaying the same measured calm that characterises much of his own directorial work. The film impassively relates the story of Razieh, a young girl desperate to buy a goldfish to commemorate the New Year. This micro-story is essayed in painstaking detail. Just as time’s passing can be stultifying to a child’s agile, impatient mind, even the girl’s quest to persuade her parents to pay for the fish seems to take an age (we never see the father, we just hear his voice booming). Throughout the film, the girl’s zeal turns to vulnerability as she nearly loses her money to a snake charmer, and then drops it down a gridded cellar shaft. Though no harm comes to the girl and she is able to buy her goldfish, the presence of almost every adult seems to suggest an indifference that threatens to become malevolence. The film closes on the image of another character, a lonely boy, seemingly orphaned or abandoned, who carries the eponymous balloon. This unshakable ending, a lingering shot held for just  subtly suggests that although Razieh has found a happy ending of sorts, there are millions more such stories – far less happy ones too – clamouring to be told.

Panahi’s next film Mirror (1997) deftly redeploys another child protogonist. Mirror deconstructs realism rather than asserting it as a given: the film starts with a girl who finds that her mother hasn’t come to meet her from school and that she must find her own way home. Halfway through this seemingly naturalistic piece the girl simply declares she doesn’t want to be in a film anymore, leaving a confused camera crew to follow her. It’s not so much a plot twist as an attempt to spray metaphysical graffiti over what is essentially the same story as The White Balloon. In the second, “documentary” half of the film, takes are now longer, and held at a voyeuristic distance, Tehran’s rumbling traffic obscuring much of the action rather than just punctuating it as in the first half of the film. The girl is still wearing her microphone but the film’s sound design becomes more enveloping, her conversation with taxi drivers and Tehran’s other occupants weaving in and out of the sound of car horns and construction work.

During long stretches of the film we – like the documentary crew – can’t see the girl at all. When she converses off-screen with a man who claims to have dubbed John Wayne and other famous Hollywood actors into Iranian, their conversation seems like a bizarre audiovisual disjunction as the take teems with vehicles and pedestrians. It is as if Panahi asks himself and his audience to contemplate what separates his own filmmaking method from documentary, and what separates a significant piece of information from the constant hum of city life.

Panahi considers Mirror “an experiment” that paved the way for the less playful concerns that mark his next film The Circle (2000). [2]  Supposedly “the victim of several suspicious lab mishaps”[3] that delayed the film’s completion, The Circle presents interlocking stories that again focus on female characters, this time adults with concerns far more pressing than those of the children of The White Balloon and Mirror. The films metallic-blue palette and strange granularity are perhaps fortuitous result of this likely post-production sabotage. Every image looks etched, and the film as a whole has a formal austerity with a kind-of circular structure that betrays a Bressonian concentration. Result: form and content are so closely knotted that they become indistinguishable.

Darkness gives way to light and then draws in again. Narrative centrality is passed from one character to the next like a baton in a relay race. Authority figures confront or menace each female character, and although none of these women seem particularly immoral or mercenary, all are under suspicion. They need permission from men to ride buses or withdraw money, and the only alternatives appear to be quietism or prostitution. At the film’s end, all of the characters, some of whom were released from prison at the film’s outset, find themselves in the same police cell following their separate misdemeanours. One can just about see the gallows humour in the Iranian authorities’ assertion that the film is “offensive to Muslim women.”[4]

Crimson Gold (2003) has an honesty and a clarity that cut through the unfamiliar and distant setting and cultural context. When, near the outset, two men discuss the profession of pickpocketing and ponder the suggestion that a robbery might boost their income substantially, there is not a hint of mafia glamour or hardbitten grit – Nor are we baited with a hard-luck, Third World sob-story that would too easily trip liberal guilt-switches without engendering any real engagement or commitment from the viewer. Rather, we get a vivid impression of “average” people drawn into a morally dangerous situation by their lack of self-knowledge and awareness.

The film begins with the botched robbery of a jewellers and then recounts the story of how this crime came about. Perhaps this is Panahi’s concession to American genre cinema. Many thrillers and noirs begin like this. In some ways, an allusion to B-thrillers is entirely apposite: Panahi wants to lose the bloated psychologising and allegorising and bring us close to the moral and physical implications of the violent act; so close we can almost feel the sweat of Hussain, the wrought, shell-shocked protagonist.

The impassive regarding of violence in the film’s opening imbues every subsequent shot with a palpable sense of menace. A drawn-out scene where Hussain arrives to deliver a pizza at a gaudy bachelor pad feels like it could erupt into Raskolnikovian amorality at any second. The rich man welcomes Hussain into his home and strikes up a mostly one-sided conversation. Hussain regards the material luxuries through tiny, acquisitive eyes, but Panahi has wrong-footed us; the sequence merely culminates in a boozy belch echoing above the Tehran skyline.

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Offside (2006), the story of several girls (none of them named in the film’s dialogue) attempting to sneak into the men-only environment of  2006’s Bahrain/Iran World Cup qualifying match, is ostensibly less bleak than the two films that preceded it. The film was inspired by a real-life incident involving Panahi’s daughter. After their capture, the girls are detained in a pen at the top of the stadium. Although the subsequent dialogue between guards and captors reveal social and gender inequalities, Panahi concretises the situation rather than turning it into a Socratic dialogue – Rarely has the atmosphere of a big, stadium event been captured so accurately on screen, nor has the stomach-churning anxiety of defying authority and the subsequent fear of being caught.  A lengthy, farcical sequence involves a soldier taking a captured girl to the men’s toilet (as no women are allowed in the stadium, there are no women’s facilities) wearing a poster of football star Ali Karimi with eye holes poked into it.

Filming on the day of the actual match, Panahi took a huge chance with an outcome that could have given the story two distinctive endings. But despite this experiment with chance, the film never advertises its own documentary veracity, just as it never descends into preaching. The Camera approach the film’s subjects head-on, without appearing too “framed” or photo-pretty, yet sidestepping any of the clichéd shaky-cam antics that are naturalism’s equivalent of what Manny Farber called “gimping.” Instead, the camera’s proximity is an embodiment of commitment. When the first girl tries to enter the stadium, the camera follows her closely, tracking the back of her head, while male football supporters stream in all about her. Here is Panahi’s method in its essence: to try to grasp reality in its fluctuating, inchoate state – not flinching – and coming back with something hard, unbreakable.

Panahi’s films, taken as a whole, don’t resemble the cohesive body of work of a European auteur of the old school. Instead, there is a different kind of continuum – They offer us a chance to make sense of the bewildering, constant flow of modern life. The camera here is a witness to the outside world – hence Panahi’s willingness to leave the ending of Offside to chance, and in Mirror, the film crew’s snap decision that their film will now have to be a documentary depicting their actress fleeing from them.

Panahi’s desire to bear witness is the reason why so little of the drama he creates takes place behind closed doors.  Instead the street corner, the shopfront, the bus journey become key. In a society where one’s private business can easily become public concern, Panahi shuts out the private and zooms in on public life, imbuing it with a rare intimacy. But as well as commitment to the truth, there is a concurrent commitment to the expression of beauty. Asked about his fascination with Tehran, Panahi responded:

My knowledge of the city comes from forty years experiencing it. I observe all details. Everything from a raindrop to a ray of sunshine is very close to me.[5]

Perhaps Panahi observes details a little too closely; for speaking honestly about life as he sees it, Panahi has – for now – been silenced.

Notes

[1] Mohammed Atebbai, “Why The Circle is a breakthrough for Iranian Cinema – And Why They Banned It” Film Comment Vol 36 no 4 (July/August 2000) p. 14.

[2] Gonul Donmez-Colin, Cinemas of the Other: A Personal Journey with Filmmakers from the Middle East and Central Asia (UK: Intellect Books, 2006) p. 94.

[3] Paul Arthur, “Movie of the Moment: The Circle” Film Comment Vol 37 no 2 (March/April 2001) p. 23.

[4] Gonul Donmez-Colin, Cinemas of the Other p. 91.

[5] ibid p. 95.

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