Yasmeen Khan reviews Jafar Panahi’s 2013 Silver Bear winner, which reaches our screens this week.
Followers of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s career will be keenly anticipating the release of 2013’s Closed Curtain (Pardé), his seventh feature film. It’s a collaboration, co-directed with fellow Iranian director and screenwriter Kamboziya Partovi, who also stars. Partovi and Panahi have worked together on five films before; Partovi wrote the screenplay for Panahi’s The Circle (2000). (This fact will become doubly relevant.)
Jafar Panahi has always been popular outside of Iran, ever since his charming 1995 film The White Balloon found an international audience. Inside Iran, though, his films have often been banned, and in March of 2010 he and a group of collaborators were arrested and charged with making propaganda against the Iranian government. In December that year, Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and banned from directing films, writing screenplays, giving interviews with Iranian or foreign media, and from leaving the country for 20 years. Despite this, he’s already made three films in secret since then. The first, 2011’s This is Not a Film, was made secretly in Panahi’s home and famously smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake. It’s both a portrait of Panahi’s life under house arrest (he was waiting for the result of an appeal against his six-year prison sentence) and an exercise in meditation upon the nature of modern film-making. It’s collaborative, co-directed by producer and director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It’s also in the postmodern tradition, being as much about the storytelling as the stories. (Perhaps this is something no artist can come back from?)
Panahi’s been breaking the fourth wall for a long time – 1997’s The Mirror has its little girl deciding she doesn’t want to be in the film any more. He’s never followed the rules. He’s also always been able to infuse his films with intense emotional honesty and rawness – Crimson Gold (2003) is one of the most moving films you will ever see, its social commentary rooted in a very pure consideration of human misery. (Poignancy arises because the films feel deeply compassionate, too.)
But with the ban, and with This is Not a Film It was as if his career had reached a point of purity, of distillation of his craft. On the surface, it’s a portrait of his real life, but of course there is always fiction, there is always emotion even in the most factual of filmed items. Panahi was protesting against the taking away of his artistic freedom, and he was problematising that on film by depicting his house arrest, because in so doing, he was showing that it’s impossible not to exercise some kind of artistry, no matter what your subject matter is. Its stripped-down form allows an unusual level of profundity.
But having reached this point of distillation, having stripped his art back so far, reducing it to the contents of his own home-slash-prison, what could Panahi do now? Where do you go from such an act?
The answer comes in the form of Closed Curtain, the second of these films made in captivity. It’s a companion to This is Not a Film in many ways, sharing an aesthetic as well as a background. It too was made in secrecy at Panahi’s home by the Caspian Sea – the closed curtains of the title were necessary in actuality as well as for the story. It, too, is about the process of writing films and the choices storytellers make. It too is deceptively minimalist in outlook. But after This is Not a Film’s simplified purity of purpose, it seems as if Closed Curtain is beginning to build complexity back up again, adding layers of fiction, metaphor and character building to the core portrait of Panahi’s situation.
Closed Curtain opens with a scene unfolding in the distance; the viewer watches from inside, through iron shutters as a man gets out of a car and approaches the house. His first act on getting inside is to close all the curtains against the daylight outside. They are so thin, they barely make a difference to the bright sunshine, so he begins to put up blackout material at the windows. Only when he’s safe from observation does he open his bag and reveal he’s smuggled his pet dog inside.
He looks after the dog. He shaves his head. A few strange things happen. He writes. Then he films himself, under his own direction, reenacting events to try to work out what’s going on.It’s all very mysterious. Why does this man need to remain hidden? Why can’t he take the dog out for a walk? Why does he have to be a prisoner in this house? Is he under arrest too?
It turns out that dogs have been banned; the government has deemed them impure, an affront against Islam. Some truly distressing imagery depicting the fate of dogs found in public follows; Panahi has never been one to shield the viewer from pain, exactly.
Then another man and a woman turn up, claiming that ‘they’ are after them too. ‘They’ have arrested everyone on the beach, and followed the pair to the house. Soldiers, or perhaps police, turn up, but the blackout curtains do the job and they leave, thinking the house is empty. The second man goes to fetch a car, and the man with the dog and the woman are left to get on with things.
In Closed Curtain, the forces of government are anonymous; the nonsensical rules of totalitarianism and the fear it generates are generalised. This feels like a protest that goes wider than any one country or religious oppression; rather, it feels like a satirical statement, almost, a kind of examination of the logical consequences of any illogical religious government.
At the same time, it’s an exercise in genre. The remote house setting, the thunderstorm outside, and the mystery of these characters combine to create an oppressive atmosphere, like a ghost story or a murder mystery is about to unfold. The nameless hunters outside could be anything from real soldiers, searching only for real criminals, to the kinds of lawless (or lawful, which may be worse – either way is anarchic) terror seen in films from Funny Games to The Strangers to The Purge. This is a siege.
The blackout curtains give a strange, displaced feeling – you have little idea whether it’s night or day outside until the man opens the door or the woman goes up to the roof. As it turns out, the woman wants to change everything, to draw the curtains back and let in the light. and the danger. And the metaphorical curtains come back, too. Light is shed on what’s happening here.
This is the kind of story that keeps turning over in your mind, as the pieces fall into place over and over in slightly different ways, like twisting a kaleidoscope. It’s poignant, profound and intelligent filmmaking.
We are privileged to be able to watch Panahi’s art develop in a way his native Iran cannot, and the international community is supportive. Closed Curtain won the Silver Bear at Berlin in 2013. (Panahi’s next, Taxi, won 2015’s Golden Bear, and will be released in the UK soon) But it’s uncomfortable, too to have to realise that this current phase of creativity is born out of attempts to suppress his voice. While all artists are products of their circumstances, direct political pressure and censorship isn’t something affecting every filmmaker – so what would he be doing if he was free to do as he pleased? Perhaps there is genius in his ability to make you feel that his work should be developing just like this; the artistic ideas in this collaboration feel natural and unforced even at the same time as the story is a political response to a specific political situation. The tension between these two aspects of its content makes watching Closed Curtain a fascinating experience. But making it had consequences; Panahi’s still under sentence, and since Closed Curtain was shown in Berlin, both Partovi and the film’s main actress, Maryam Moghadam, have been banned from travelling outside of Iran.