The life and work of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has become a major story in recent years within both global politics and film history. From the ever-evolving accusations of acting against national security and spreading anti-government propaganda by the Iranian state, to the overwhelming support received from the international film community in opposition to his imprisonment, Panahi is one of the most talked about artists on the planet. Currently under house arrest and serving a twenty year ban on filmmaking, writing scripts and giving interviews, Panahi lives his life in a type of limbo, a legal purgatory known in Iran as the Execution of Verdict where the threat of actual prison is never off the table. Yet despite this depressing predicament, Panahi has never surrendered himself to the Iranian state. His bravery and courage in the face of political and legal aggression, has inspired many, including the women and children of Iran whose stories of oppression and persecution constituted his early cinematic works.
Like his fellow New Wave filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Panahi has consistently won the highest prizes on offer at the European film festivals. While his Golden Bear winning Taxi (2015) was recently described as a victory for both ‘freedom of speech and the art of cinematic storytelling’, this is an achievement equally applicable to The Circle (2000), Panahi’s brave exploration of the brutality and injustice endured by Iranian women within their inherently male-dominated world.
Although many will have heard of the problems faced by women in Iran from newspaper articles, TV news segments and books, few will have had the unfortunate fate of direct experience. Immersed in the city landscape and the predicaments of five women, arranged in a chain-like structure without an overarching narrative or causal explanation, Panahi enables us to vicariously experience their deplorable situation, without risking an excessive moralising or didacticism familiar to more conventional means of interpreting the material. Shot in a cinematographic style inherited from the work of the Italian neorealists, (documentary, handheld) but also allowing for influences from long-take art cinema, Panahi’s camera drifts arounds his subjects, always in search of new material; capturing moments of grief, anxiety and dread in pursuit of the women unreasonably hunted by the state.
Panahi has often talked about the debt he has paid to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, whose films came to define the suspense film. In The Circle, every character is a Hitchcock wrong man, chased and hounded through the streets for the crime of being female. But despite the tension and suspense manifested in this art house thriller, The Circle offers nothing to offend a Western censorship board. Unfortunately, the film was banned in Iran and is therefore unlikely to have direct influence in the country. The international film community have shown their support for Panahi in the past, and by watching, talking and debating his films, we can show ours in the future.
I will be introducing the film at Tyneside Cinema on May 7th at 6:05pm