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This past December the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail for “making propaganda against the state,” and to a twenty-year ban on any film work, interviews with foreign media, or leaving Iran. Panahi had been in much trouble with the regime lately, having allied himself at home and abroad with the Green Movement and having dared to wear symbolic green at last year’s Montreal festival. He had been arrested in July of 2009 at a graveside ceremony for Neda Agha-Soltan, then again in March of this year, taken to the infamous Evin Prison, where he reported mistreatment and went on a hunger strike. Released last May, he was tried in November and sentenced December 20. Panahi’s situation has been extensively covered this year by Big Hollywood’s John T. Simpson.
Panahi first came to attention in the West with “The White Balloon” in 1995, which won Camera d’Or at Cannes, then “The Mirror” in 1997, which received the Golden Leopard at Locarno. But it is “The Circle” of 2000, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, that marks Panahi’s arrival among the first ranks of artists of moral stature.
“The Circle” is a ronde of multiple women passing near a mobile camera and through Tehran’s labyrinthine streets. But this isn’t the Viennese confection of Ophuls or the wanderings of Altman. Rather, in Panahi’s neo-realist style it more closely resembles documentary battle footage, deepened by long takes and much ambient sound with little music. Starting with a distraught woman giving birth to a baby girl, which means the husband’s family will shortly abandon them both, we elide to two women fleeing prison — one under threat by her male family to get an abortion, the other trying to raise money to get her friend back to her home village, a dubious enterprise. These two slip past another woman trying to abandon her young daughter so that the girl might live beyond prostitution, but they are nonetheless accused and taken into police custody, jailed with real prostitutes, who wear the same look of cornered animal dread as all the prior women in the film. Seemingly simple, “The Circle” is a masterpiece in the anatomy of Iran’s Islamist culture and its hatred of women.
Over the last decades much praise has been heaped on the New Iranian Cinema, suggesting something like a New Czech Cinema, mainly by the multiculturalist bien-pensants of European film festivals, with Abbas Kiarostami getting the lion’s share of praise, fitting for a filmmaker whose ambiguously minimalist style covers an alluring but empty formalism.
It is Panahi who holds the frightening truth up against real, lethal power. For all their posturing, the Western independent, avant-garde, or underground filmmakers have mostly been panderers to adolescent alienation and nihilism, in return for obscene fame and fortune. There is a real difference between a gift bag from the Oscars and a bullet behind the ear.
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