Iranian film director Jafar Panahi has been recently sentenced, in Iran, to six years in prison. Additionally, he’s been forbidden to make movies, write movies, be interviewed by anyone about movies, or travel outside Iran for another twenty years. I know for a fact that ‘The Circle’ (Dayereh) is banned in Iran – I suspect his other films either have been or will be.
By western standards, this is unfathomable – those who have seen Mr. Panahi’s excellent films laud his commitment to presenting the truth about Iranian culture without preachiness, political pandering or tear-jerking manipulation. They are not passionate exposés or fist-shaking screeds. They are well-structured, objective narratives that freely allow the viewer to make up their own mind about the culture his characters are a part of, and who these characters have become within it.
The one film of his I’ve seen, The Circle (Dayereh) (2000), is very much in this vein. It follows a series of women who have just been released from prison. Their particular offenses are never enumerated, but, as the film goes on, we learn a number of possible charges.
Women can’t smoke in public. Women must, more often than not, be accompanied by their husband or another adult male family member when outside, in public; women in public, in the direct company of men who don’t fit the previous description, are often assumed to be prostitutes. Women must wear the chador in many buildings and public institutions; it is the large circular scarf that loosely covers the head and upper body. (The hijab is the tighter-wrapped headscarf cover worn with a high-necked blouse or overcoat; the niqab is the below-the-eyes facial veil, lesser used in Iran; the burqa is the full-body-covering, with veiled face, that is more prevalent in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Iran is actually considered moderate in the enforcement of these Muslim religious garment codes).
Upon leaving jail, they are in a kind of fugitive exile; shunned by their families in shame, shunned by other men as undesirables, without money or resources, they are constantly fearful of being noticed by ubiquitous policemen and being re-jailed.
Before being introduced to the series of former prisoners, the film opens in a hospital waiting room, where a young married woman has just given birth to a lovely and healthy child. “It’s a girl,” declares the helpful nurse to the woman’s mother. The mother checks with other nurses – “Yes, it’s a girl.” “Her inlaws will be furious and ask him to divorce her,” laments the mother. The ultrasound was misread; the inlaws aren’t interested in a girl.
We then move outside the hospital to three recently released prisoners, Maede, Arezou and Nargess. Trying to contact friends to help them out, Maede is almost immediately arrested for trying to sell a gold necklace to passersby. Soldiering on, Arezou attempts to contact another recently released ex-con, Pari, while Nargess longs for money to allow her to return to her rural home. Eventually, the street-wise Arezou is able to raise money for the younger Nargess to travel on; but other obstacles appear.
We next meet Pari, who, thrown out of her home by her brothers, seeks help from another ex-prisoner, Elham. But Elham is married now, with a good hospital job, and can’t risk revealing her past to her current benefactors in order to help Pari.
And along la ronde we continue, from woman to woman, dilemma to dilemma. But Panahi never allows us to despair, never lets us feel outrightly sorry for any of them. Even though their means of survival are sometimes distressing, he insists that they are, indeed, survivors. We are free to decide they are victims, but Panahi himself never condescends to them in that way, never tries to convince us of their ‘victimhood.’
As mentioned before, this is strong medicine for western sensibilities. But Panahi’s narrative moves quickly, insistently; his camera, and the editing, always propel you along across these episodes. I didn’t find this to be a dour, depressing chronicle of misfortune, though, admittedly, many describe it as such; it feels, to me, more like a ‘caper’ film, or a compelling ‘Escape From _____’ thriller.
I encourage you to see this terrific film for yourself. You can save the DVD on Netflix (I’m confident of its availability soon), and it will surely be screened frequently in support of its admirable director.
Indeed, there is already a free screening scheduled at Facets Multimedia on Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 1 P.M.