Squaring the Circle

By Emilie Bickerton

white-balloon-jafar-panahi.jpgWhite Balloon, 1995

The dynamic cinema of Iran’s Jafar Panahi moves from the topical to the timeless

Ricochets, not circles, should be Jafar Panahi’s motif. Whilst circles return to their point of origin, ricochets leave theirs behind, and in his five feature films to date, the Iranian director has made timeless and timely, provocative works of art. They offer spectators a means to understand the world being evoked, rather than providing a circular lament on repression.

He suffers the paradox of being celebrated internationally but isolated nationally as his last three films, Dayreh/The Circle (2000), Talaye Sorkh/Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2005) are banned in his native country. Despite this, Panahi remains engaged enough to grasp the mood in Iran to make films that speak both to and of it. Offside is the best indication of this. In February the film received Berlin’s Silver Bear, but because it concerns women illegally entering football stadiums by dressing up as men, it will not be screened in Iran. However, in April the government unexpectedly lifted this stadium ban. The motivations behind the decision had little to do with Panahi directly, but the timeliness of his film is impressive.

By choosing not to make his films crude indictments against men, religion, the police or the state however, Panahi’s works register first at an allegorical level. Thus we have a director developing an oeuvre that combines social concerns with genuine cinematic expression. Since Badkonake Sefid/The White Balloon (1995), each film has spoken of a society that is in motion, bubbling with anger and potential, but this has been communicated in a distinctly visual way.

Emerging from the olive trees

Like many younger film-makers in Iran, Panahi’s first introduction to cinema was quickly coloured by the influence of Abbas Kiarostami. Born in 1960, he grew up in a poor district of Tehran and in his teenage years enrolled in Kanoun, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults set up by Kiarostami in the sixties (who also taught cinema there). Between 1980-88, Panahi was called-up to fight in the Iran-Iraq war, where he also took many reportage photographs. When the conflict ended he entered the Tehran College of Cinema and Television and joined Kiarostami again to work as his assistant on Zire Darakhatan Zeyton/Through The Olive Trees (1994), in which he also starred, moustached and sprightly, as a fictional assistant camera man.

The kindness of the city

Kiarostami encouraged Panahi to make his own features and together they wrote the script for The White Balloon (Kiarostami also provided the screenplay for Crimson Gold). In contrast to the village-settings of many of Kiarostami’s early films, Panahi’s works are best described as chronicles of Tehran city life. The White Balloon and Ayneh/The Mirror (1997) show the city from the perspective of children, as two young protagonists each pursue their goals with industriousness and admirable determination (Raziek wants to buy a goldfish, Mina needs to get back home after her mother hasn’t collected her from the school gates). The girls are, as Panahi openly admits, a premise around which to explore adult lives, although he still shows the city from the child’s perspective. This distinguishes him from another Iranian director, Abolfazl Jalili, who really does use children to consider adult issues because their innocent front is more likely to pass the censors.

circle-jafar-panahi.jpgThe Circle, 2000

In Panahi’s work the immensity and treachery of the city strikes us completely as our contact is mediated through the young girls, but what also emerges is an over-riding impression of its kindness, at least towards children. Even the ominous snake charmers in The White Balloon eventually only ask a smile from little Raziek, returning her precious goldfish money they had pretended to steal. Both girls negotiate the chaotic streets and seek help from bus or taxi drivers, shopkeepers and passers-by. Adults show neither overwhelming sympathy, nor do they seem hostile or threatening- helping is natural rather than heroic.

In The Circle and Crimson Gold Panahi tests this social kindness against the treatment of adults-using women in The Circle, or a returning soldier (Hussein), turned pizza deliverer in Crimson Gold as his subjects. Panahi’s optimism is challenged, but not weakened, as we witness a far crueller existence for those undermined by prejudices, rigid rules and inequality.

However, Panahi makes no direct accusations. In The Circle for example, women flee an abstract authoritarian law and whenever this might take on a human face the soldiers or policemen are immediately vindicated, they smile, or innocently buy clothes for their wives. It does not help, Panahi is suggesting, to make sense of evil on an individual level; social problems can’t be explained by conjuring human monsters.

Crimson Gold too, does not vilify the upper-class. We tail Hussein’s moped and visit upmarket neighbourhoods, but Panahi just attributes to the wealthier classes some harmless eccentricities. Only the jeweller is crudely presented, telling Hussein (as he browses the store’s diamond necklaces after a delivery) that what he is looking for ‘is sold in the bazaar at the bottom of the hill’, which is the source of the tragic denouement.

A carefully roaming camera

Panahi has made clear that his key concern is not political film making (this produces propaganda, he says) but how to convey his story and ideas, how specifically to put it into pictures. The form, in other words, is part of the telling, the message will always emerge as long as you are communicating it correctly. This very aesthetically-focused approach gives Panahi’s commentaries a distinctive nature and delivery that mixes strict naturalism with rich imagery and creative storytelling.

After the first Gulf War, Panahi made documentaries on the conflict and in his features he continues to draw on those techniques and structures. For example, The White Balloon and The Mirror are both set in real time, and the spectator is asked to register this, with the background noise of a radio occurring in the two films, providing the countdown to new year in the former and, for Mina’s journey, a football commentary runs throughout.

Non-actors, too, are favoured by Panahi because they won’t artificially play up to the screen, nor will the spectator have the burden of recognition, thus hindering an authentic engagement. And, most importantly, in the documentary style his films borrow from, Panahi never uses sound outside the diegisis. The noise that accompanies his pictures is the constant hum of city life- mopeds, grinding trucks or the chatter and bustle on pavements and by kiosks. If there is to be music it will be taken from what is playing in an apartment visited by Hussein, or a group of musicians in the crowds of The White Balloon.

This documentary aspect affirms the reality of the world being described, but it is only an impression of naturalism, as spontaneity under Panahi is carefully managed. Characters often tell their true life stories, but have been instructed precisely how to do so. We notice how tightly Panahi controls his realism when things do break down, notably in the extraordinary transformation of The Mirror from fiction film to documentary pursuit. The actress playing Mina suddenly refuses to continue, forty minutes into the film. Audaciously, Panahi salvaged this ruined project by following her anyway, as she unwittingly left her microphone attached. What we thus see is how the true story completes the fiction: the actress must return home and so resumes Mina’s pretend journey. Forced into documentary, we see how different the inclusion of sound and stitching together of shots suddenly are. Noise becomes overbearing and voices indistinguishable, we lose the close-ups and unhurried camera movements.

Poetic license is thus integral to Panahi’s work. His films have been composed of vignettes rather than being character-driven studies. This gives Panahi the freedom to gather Tehran’s dispersed lives in a way we would otherwise have no chance of seeing come together. In The White Balloon for example, by virtue of Raziek, we meet an Afghan balloon seller, an old Polish lady, a homesick soldier, as well as seeing the girl’s own domestic setting. The Circle assembles snapshots of women in flight. We see so many stories of those trying to break out of imposed boundaries: women fleeing husbands, seeking abortions, trying to abandon their children on street corners or resorting to prostitution.

The momentum of these women’s movements carries the film, but also the spectator, and it is an example of Panahi putting ideas into the very form of his feature. We are never allowed to rest on a single story as the action quickly moves to another predicament. This introduces restlessness in the watching, a sense of urgency and danger whenever things stand still. In the very structure of the ensemble piece, then, Panahi encourages a kind of virtual solidarity between spectator and characters.

offside-jafar-panahi.jpgL: Jafar Panahi R: Offside, 2006

What knits this together and leads to finally meaningful film- making is the richness of Panahi’s images. This is the most striking aspect of his aesthetic and the main way in which he conveys ideas through formal choices. Faces are captured so sharply and long, searching close-ups are used, along with contrasting pictures of chaotic crowds and traffic jams. With the aesthetic quality and the vignette structure we watch with a sense of being able to discover and understand what we see- it is Panahi’s camera that encourages this belief and openness. It roams unhurriedly, taking in the surroundings to eventually fall on an individual, hear their story and then move on anew. We in turn are lured into this approach, asked to watch the scenes, take in the fullness of each image but also expect to be let in and learn about passing characters.

For Panahi the camera reveals elements of reality to us, it does not add more to it, so he is as austere as a documentary maker in what he brings to his films, but liberates his aesthetic by drawing together people otherwise isolated from each other and presenting them as fully knowable. This is Panahi’s greatest victory to date and why his work should resonate positively internationally. The images do not scream out or artificially claim that ‘this is Iran today’ in a self-conscious fashion but, finally and naturally, this is what they show.

Squaring the circle

Through Panahi’s works so far we have been extended an invitation to understand Iran a little better and, by the same token, we are offered precise insights into human existence. Sometimes it is tempting to square his circle however, to lose the visual motif he frequently draws on to explain his work and ideas. Circles mean that he will always start with the final scene, or gather in the film’s first picture all the relevant characters, so that the rest of the narrative’s time is spent returning to this original point. The motif even saturates his cinema at moments. At one point in The Circle a young woman enters a building-turned-factory. She looks up at the spiralling staircases, people circulate around her and she starts to spin herself, seeking out a familiar face. We too feel giddy watching this, realising how tempting it is to accept a sense of powerlessness in such a predicament.

Thus circles do have a symbolic power and the idea that we all live within one has its logic, but also its limits: if you always come back to the point of origin, is there ever any progress? “Everyone lives within a circle”, Panahi has said, “either due to economic, political, cultural or family problems or traditions” and in order to get beyond a set boundary, to widen the radius, you always have to pay a certain price. Pushing its boundaries is all very well then, but better, surely, to break them. The structure of society is not, after all, an alien imposition, but human-centred, so although it does not help to concentrate evil or oppression in a single face, as Panahi so resists in his films, at the same time, entirely to abstract the problem and make the obstacle ‘the police’ or ‘the state’ makes the fight a harder one to provoke and win. There is a danger that too much realism in the desire to avoid black and white distinctions can just shift such simplifications onto the work’s political understanding.

Panahi has said that if he achieves anything with his films today, he hopes it will be to give his society a boost to rise up against its current laws. So, he seeks a knock-on, or ricochet effect. This fits better with his over-riding optimism and inviting aesthetic. He celebrates the possibility of film being a way of getting to know others, at the same time as recognizing the image’s power to expose some of the harshest constraints humans impose on each other. So far Panahi has gone some way to capturing both and there is every reason, as Offside indicates, that his metaphors of resistance won’t remain at an allegorical level.

Offside is currently on general release in the UK, care of Artificial Eye.

Emilie Bickerton writes widely on film, literature and visual culture. She lives in London.