JAFAR PANAHI : IMPRISONED FOR HIS FILMS
On December 20th 2010 one of Iran’s strongest cinematic voices was forcibly silenced. Internationally famous filmmaker Jafar Panahi was charged with “carrying out propaganda against the system” (1). Panahi was initially arrested while making a film in his house along with 18 others. The Tehran Prosecutor said that his arrest is not related to his filmmaking, stating: “His arrest is not because he is an artist and is not political, either. This individual is a suspect for some crimes.” (2) However, the credibility of this claim is seriously lacking given Panahi’s sentence. The sentence means that he will be jailed for six years, but perhaps worse is that he is prevented from writing, filmmaking, giving interviews or travelling abroad for twenty years (3). Essentially he is stripped of his livelihood, his freedom and his voice as a filmmaker. With due consideration to Panahi’s current situation, I will examine three of his films and consider the problems they may pose to the current Iranian constitution. The films I will explore are: The White Balloon (1995), The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006).
The White Balloon, written by Abbas Kiarostami, is Panahi’s debut feature. It tells the story of a young girl determined to buy a fish. The story explores the various obstacles she encounters as a result of her innocence; a snake charmer steals her money though she manages to get it back, before promptly losing it again down the grate at the entrance to a closed shop. The film gives us a sense of the struggle the little girl has to go through in a society largely dominated by adult males. While this theme is subtle it is still very much present and hints at the prominent concern of both The Circle and Offside. The White Balloon also resembles a reality which provided the inspiration for Offside, that of childish persistence. Panahi has said that his inspiration for Offside (in which a young girl tries to gain entry to a football match) was his own daughter’s determination to get into a football match (4); these subtle ideas in Panahi’s work represent a tendency to contest fundamental conservative values in Iranian society.
I will return to discuss Offside shortly, but before that I want to look at The Circle. Perhaps the bleakest (but by no means hopeless) of the three films I choose to look at here. The Circle displays a storytelling device that Panahi also employs within Offside, that of using multiple protagonists; Panahi uses this as an effective method of representing woman as a social group. In The Circle we follow six characters, each experiencing a different dilemma caused in part by simply being a woman in a decidedly patriarchal society. The film begins with the mother of a woman who has just given birth to a baby girl. The mother worries that her daughter will be divorced by her husband, as he wanted a son. The mother then encounters three women who have just been released from prison. Without any money the women are worried that they will be arrested again as their only resources may be criminal. One of the women goes in search of another friend who has just escaped from prison. The escapee is pregnant and wants an abortion, but cannot have the abortion approved as the baby’s father was executed in prison. The escapee meets another woman who attempts to abandon her daughter with a wealthy family, to give her a better life. Following this the escapee is mistaken for a prostitute and is almost arrested. She manages to escape however, but we witness another prostitute being taken to prison instead. As the title suggests, the women are all stuck in a ‘vicious circle’. While bleak the end of the film involves an act of defiance as the prostitute lights a cigarette, despite being ordered not to by the men taking her to jail. It is the themes of persistence and defiance as seen in The White Balloon and The Circle that characterise Panahi’s films. In Offside he makes the strongest statement, by subversively celebrating these characteristics.
Offside makes use of the multiple protagonist technique as seen in The Circle, once again to explore the defiant nature of a group of girls who share a love of football. The film explores the taboo in Islamic Iranian society whereby women are not allowed to attend male sporting events as spectators (5), regardless of their appreciation of the sport. Panahi successfully dramatises the problem by not simply making this issue a problem purely experienced by females. For instance in one scene a girl who has been caught sneaking into the stadium requests to be taken to the toilet. Her guard escorts her to the toilets, but loses her in the chaos of the stadium; suddenly where once the girl had a problem, the man now does instead. Many of the men in the film are represented as simply doing their duty, often appearing frustrated at their difficult responsibilities and this suggests that it is the overriding ideology that is governing their actions, rather than a real and heartfelt responsibility. Perhaps by exposing the cracks in the dominant ideology Panahi is even more subversive; he does not just represent women as repressed, but represents the consequences the ideology has for men too. At the end of the film Panahi shows the detained group of women being taken to the Vice Squad, but on the way they are caught up in traffic when news breaks of Iran’s victory in the world cup qualifiers. The women take the opportunity to break out into the streets and celebrate with the male supporters all around them. The idea that Panahi presents here is very powerful and it draws me to consider the twenty year filmmaking ban he has placed on him.
If Panahi is capable of articulately suggesting flaws in the codes of conduct in present-day Iranian society, as well glorifying moments of defiance in day to day activity, then it is no surprise that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s right-wing government would benefit from having his voice as a filmmaker silenced. Furthermore Panahi is also a supporter of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s Green Party of Hope and given the controversy over the 2009 Iranian elections, where Mousavi claimed Ahmadinejad’s victory to be fraudulent, it comes as no surprise that he should find himself in jail. The truth of the situation though is that this is a tragedy not only for freedom of speech in Iran, but also for the international cinema community. We are now deprived of an important cinematic voice for twenty years. But as Panahi put it in an open letter to the Berlin Film Festival 2011:
“I wish my fellow filmmakers in every corner of the world would create such great films that by the time I leave the prison I will be inspired to continue to live in the world they have dreamed of in their films.” (6)
For this reason we must share the work of Jafar Panahi as a symbol of his wish and we must hope that when he is released his influence as a filmmaker will be great enough to make up for the time cinema has spent without him.
Words by Tom Cottey