If there is an Iranian filmmaker suppressed, banned, and arrested by the despotic regime of Iran it is Jaffar Panahi. But this never stopped him from making films or cow down to the authorities . He has smuggled his films from his jail cell that have been to European film festivals but boycotted and banned in his own country.
Few filmmakers show such consummate understanding and command over time and space in their formal preoccupation as Jafar Panahi. He is considered a realist, a position I may want to contest, given his formal orientation seems to sculpt time and space at will. His 1995 film, The White Balloon is a sparkling example of austerity at its best. This austerity in Iranian cinema is not just because of restricted means but a formal choice that seamlessly blends with the overall production design and social context of the film. Major part of The White Balloon is shot on a pavement in some marketplace in Tehran. To juggle with time and space, and to create a feeling of uninterrupted time flow, when it is not is no mean achievement. Add to this the use of off-screen space, much inspired by his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, is not only a device that extends the space beyond the frame but a heightened form of economy of expression. Where less is more or to borrow the title of great Iranian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s book, “The Presence of Absence”, Panahi’s off screen world is pulsating in the Frame. His 2006 film Offside has the whole soccer match that enlivens the screen, offscreen!
Another important feature of some of Jafar Panahi films is their relay like narrative structure. The film starts with one character then as if that character is passing the baton to the next, is taken over by a new character and so on and so forth. In Offside we see a girl dressed as a boy going to watch a soccer match, as girls are not allowed to watch a football match in Iran! But once she reaches the stadium the narrative ceases to focus on her but goes along other girls who also want to watch the match but are not allowed to enter, held up by the security. Panahi returns to the girl with whom he starts the film only in the end. It is indeed a unique way to have an episodic structure while also universalizing the theme. Another film of his The Circle (2000) too has a similar structure of one woman passing the baton to the next as we get a peep into the lives of women in Iran.
It is in the area of social criticism that Jaffar Panahi begins to get problematic. He may not be didactic like the social realists of India and is cinematically superior yet makes one uncomfortable.
The film in question here is The Circle (2000). The film begins in a maternity ward with a woman giving birth to a girl child, moves to two runaway women prisoners, who in turn bump into Pari, another prisoner. The film follows Pari who goes to a reformed prisoner Elham to get her baby aborted, then meets a woman abandoning her baby so that someone can pick her and she gets a better life. This woman in turn is mistaken for a prostitute and she finally reaches the real prostitute before all women prisoners are hauled up and taken to the jail where they meet again.
There is no doubt that the condition of women in Iran is questionable. Recent killings and executions during the anti-hijab protests are a case in point. And Panahi captures their lives with documentary like authenticity but what emerges is a very contrived and mechanically constructed film. In his bid to universalize the travails of Iranian women Panahi compromises with organicity and opts for an obvious and artifial, forced route. The design and intent both are way too obvious. As if “The Circle” is not a film but a bus that is travelling through the city and stopping at various bus stops one after the other. After a point we know that passengers will get off and get on to the bus at every stop. This predictability makes the experience far less enriching.
Two other very different films from very different cultures are guilty of similar doing. One is Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad (2020) a Hindi mainstream film and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018). Thappad too becomes a marathon of women facing domestic violence as if one such effective and compelling character is not enough? Why draw such well-designed comparisons? Roma, such a beautifully shot film with a wonderful Mexican protagonist nose dives the moment the story of a Mexican maid dealing with her boyfriend’s betrayal is reflected in her Spanish mistress’s betrayal by her husband!
Jafar Panahi’s The Circle has a similar issue: forced attempt to universalize the theme. We know that all the women will most certainly have issues vis a vis the men in their lives, Iranian society, and Iran’s laughable laws, only their nature may vary. By doing this to my mind Panahi is somewhere guilty of pandering to the western construct and imagination of women in a Muslim country. No woman seems to be having a normal, happy, and perhaps unexploitative relationship. Even if this is farfetched, the need for Panahi to give us a social tour of his country makes the viewing experience vacuous and all we do is lament.
In his attempt to approach universality with a pre-conceived design, Panahi falls prey to didactism and compromises on the cinematic experience. Suddenly all his formal choices which seem so elegant in The White Balloon and Offside, also seem contrived, hence meaningless. The other big issue with The Circle is Panahi makes absolutely no effort to create concrete, living characters of those who oppress these women. None whatsoever. We get no insight into people who implement draconian Iranian laws and social taboos. Who are they and what makes them do this? They are also real people in flesh and blood and their prejudices have a long history. These people, no matter how regressive are not autonomous. But Panahi stays away from them thus aligning more with the “activist” approach to cinema than a more nuanced, contextualized reflection of people and their lives that an artist is expected to do. He opts for “look this is how we treat our women” kind of approach thus making The Circle a very unidimensional film. This also does not sit well with his humanist positioning as a maker as well. No wonder Jaffer is so popular in the western festival circle for he is catering to their perception.
The film that does captures the reality of women’s lives in an ensemble with all its complexities sans didactism is Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1956 masterpiece The Street of Shame. Set in a Tokyo brothel, much like The Circle, it traverses through the lives of a bunch of sex professionals, without creating a feeling of a contrived design. And this is because Mizoguchi humanizes both, the women and their clients and masters. The women in Street of Shame are let down by almost every man in their lives from a son to a lover, but not for a moment neither the film nor Mizoguchi become preachy, finger pointing activists. Perhaps Panahi can learn something from Mizoguchi for Street of Shame emerges as one of the foremost works of Japanese cinema.
Street of Shame(1956)
Jaffer Panahi despite his brilliant form often falls prey to his social criticism and that is indeed sad for a maker of his calibre.
Sharad Raj is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker, senior Faculty at Whistling woods International and the Editor of Just Cinema.