Compassionate concern for those on the margins of society runs through the films of Iranian director Jafar Panahi (b. 1960). Hence it was no surprise that Panahi would come to be associated with the political opposition during the massive unrest following the 2009 re-election of President Ahmadinejad. Because of his outspokenness, the government imprisoned him for several weeks and then placed him under house arrest and banned him from filmmaking. (It’s important to remember that Panahi has defied the US government as well. While changing planes at JFK Airport in April 2001, he was detained for several hours for refusing to be fingerprinted and was placed on a return flight in handcuffs.) Nevertheless, Panahi’s work has never been programmatic; rather, the politics of his films emerge from the figures on screen reacting to each other and their surroundings.
Panahi attended film school after serving in the army during the Iran-Iraq War. While making short films and television documentaries, he contacted Abbas Kiarostami to offer his services in any capacity. Kiarostami became an enthusiastic mentor, helping to get Panahi’s feature debut, The White Balloon, into Cannes, where it became the first Iranian film to win a major prize at that festival.
Like many Iranian directors, he began making films about children. The popularity of children as subjects stems in part from the existence of state funding for such films. They also serve to steer filmmakers clear of censorship problems that complicate the filming of any domestic or intimate scenes involving adult women. However, after his first two feature films, Panahi decided to tackle these complications head on by making The Circle, a devastating look at the strictures against women in contemporary Iran. This new tone of social critique continued in the unsettling Crimson Gold.
With his frequent use of non-professional actors, real locations and episodic narratives, Panahi’s films betray the influence of postwar Italian cinema. Some of his later films earned comparisons to Bresson and Scorsese with their terse depictions of alienated protagonists who suffer for their exclusion from the mainstream, which seems to be both imposed and willed.
Despite these echoes from the canon of European and American cinema, Panahi has clearly earned his place at the center of contemporary Iranian filmmaking, even though the country’s censors have banned most of his films. Besides his focus on children, Panahi’s approach to narrative reveals him to be a true disciple of Kiarostami: his films tell simple, compelling stories that exist primarily to create interactions among a number of vividly realized characters. Thus despite any number of memorable protagonists, Panahi’s films tend to become portraits of a community, a city, a neighborhood, a group of people.
It is this social aspect of his work that made his sentencing so cruel. Of course, consummate artist that he is, Panahi continues to create: his latest film, the cunningly titled This Is Not a Film, was made during that house arrest. Currently, Panahi is in a kind of limbo; neither imprisoned nor under house arrest, he remains banned from filmmaking and his sentence of six years in prison still stands. Meanwhile, Kiarostami has just announced the welcome news that Panahi has completed yet another film.Presented in collaboration with the Boston Society of Film Critics. Special thanks: Todd Wiener, Steven Hill—UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Iran 2011, 35mm, color, 75 min. Persian with English subtitles
Made during his scandalous house arrest by the Iranian government, Panahi's heroic latest film contains its stark and powerful political statement in a tender and melancholy portrait of an artist imprisoned in his own home. Filmed entirely within Panahi's apartment, This is Not a Film resembles a diary film – capturing the daily rhythms and seemingly spontaneous musings of Panahi as he speaks on the telephone, receives occasional visitors and looks back at his own films. Yet by constantly handing the camera over to friends – so as not to technically break his punishment of not being allowed to film – Panahi’s film moves constantly away from the director as subject to embrace the tumultuous world always suggested outside and suddenly revealed in the single chilling shot that closes the film.
Directed by Jafar Panahi. With Maryiam Palvin Almani, Nargess Mamizadeh, Mojdan Faramarzi
Iran/Italy/Switzerland 2000, 35mm, color, 90 min. Persian with English subtitles
The ingeniously plotted The Circle unfolds as an afternoon in Tehran turns into darkest night. Episodic in nature, the film jumps from one character to another as a string of women – expectant mothers, newly released prisoners, prostitutes – cross paths and find themselves for one reason or another on the wrong side of the strictures of Iran’s theocracy. A howl of outrage at one nation’s misogyny, the film is also a tour-de-force of filmmaking as Panahi employs every method – from elaborate camera movements to shooting in extremely low light – to tell his story.
Directed by Jafar Panahi. With Mina Mohammad Khani, Aida Mohammadkhani, Kazem Mojdehi
Iran 1997, 35mm, color, 95 min. Persian with English subtitles
What seems to be yet another Iranian film about a child dramatically changes course midway to become a startlingly self-reflexive work. The film begins simply enough, following a young girl as she leaves school one afternoon. Not finding her mother waiting for her, she tries to make her own way home. As it becomes less and less clear whether we are watching a documentary or a scripted film, we are constantly forced to reinterpret what we have seen. Iranian directors from Kamran Shirdel to Samira Makhmalbaf have brilliantly blurred the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. In Panahi’s hands, this ambiguity becomes a reflection on power relations, most directly between filmmaker and subject, but also between adults and children and, by extension, governments and citizens.
Directed by Jafar Panahi. With Hossain Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi, Azita Rayeji
Iran 2003, 35mm, color, 95 min. Persian with English subtitles
With Crimson Gold, Panahi continues his look at contemporary Tehran through the eyes of the city’s losers: in this case, a pizza deliverer who, in the opening scene, commits suicide in the midst of a botched robbery. The film then backtracks to show how one man’s alienation leads to desperation. Panahi’s everyman is endlessly and fruitlessly mobile; his profession allows Crimson Gold to present a cross-section of Iranian society. Like Taxi Driver, the film presents a portrait of a city whose social fabric is unraveling, less from vice and crime than from indifference and economic inequality. The protagonist is played by an actual pizza deliverer, Hossain Emadeddin, whose indelibly world-weary performance is an embodiment of Bressonian restraint.
Directed by Jafar Panahi. With Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kafili, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy
Iran 1995, 35mm, color, 85 min. Persian with English subtitles
With characteristic affection for his subjects, Panahi uses his camera in the film’s opening shots to examine the inhabitants of a Tehran marketplace. The camera settles on a woman, whose seven-year-old daughter Razieh soon demands money to buy a new goldfish, in celebration of the new year. The film then takes Razieh as its subject as she departs for the store, loses the money and her direction, and wanders the city streets. This simple story entails a fascinating exploration of human nature: is Razieh’s dogged pursuit of her desired purchase heroic or childish? Is she driven by an indomitable spirit or simple stubbornness? The fable-like aspects of the story are tempered by an underlying critique of Razieh’s greed and, by extension, of the selfishness of consumerism in general. Taking place more or less in real time, the bears the undeniable influence of Kiarostami, who receives a screenwriting credit. Panahi’s first film debuts a filmmaker worthy of his mentor and reveals why the director has become one of the most admired figures in world cinema today.
Directed by Jafar Panahi. With Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shayesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi
Iran 2006, 35mm, color, 93 min. Persian with English subtitles
In his last film before his sentence, Panahi returns to an examination of the constraints on women in Iran. However, here the darkness of The Circle gives way to the sense of enthusiastic determination that characterized the young protagonists of Panahi’s first two films. Like those girls, the adolescent women at the center of Offside have a simple goal: to attend a World Cup qualifying match by Iran’s national soccer team, although their gender makes their presence in the stadium officially forbidden. Panahi succeeds in brilliantly balancing critique, humor and utopian hope in his depiction of the interactions between these women and the youthful soldiers in charge of enforcing the law. Offside also serves as a respectful updating of and loving homage to Kiarostami’s first feature film, The Traveler (1974).