Many filmmakers would struggle with the challenge of creating a film under house arrest, but not Jafar Panahi; the Iranian filmmaker has managed to create three -- This is Not a Film, Closed Curtain and Taxi, all of which have scooped prizes at top international film festivals.
Closed Curtain will screen in Cairo’s Zawya on 11 May as part of the 'Narratives' week within the Hybrid Reels programme.
Panahi has been well-known on the international scene for 20 years now, gathering acclaim as one of the most important contemporary Iranian filmmakers, while inside his home country he is seen as too critical of the authorities.
His feature debut The White Balloon premiered at the 1995 Cannes film festival, earning him the Golden Camera Prize.
His later works The Mirror, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside were thematically and visually immersed in the city of Tehran, and took a critical look at social issues in Iran.
Panahi was officially charged with making propaganda against the Iranian government in 2010 and sentenced to six years in jail, which, due to pressure from the international film community, was reduced to house arrest. He also received a 20-year-ban on making films or any creative production.
But Panahi continues to defy the creative entrapment imposed on him, by producing big films in the small space of his home.
Irritating Iranian authorities, again
Closed Curtain's story begins with a writer arriving at a seaside house in Iran. Once he is alone inside, he gets his dog out of a bag. He closes all the black drapes that hang over the large windows, and we learn that the writer is hiding his dog from the government, who deems the animals un-Islamic and illegal as pets.
The writer’s isolation is interrupted one night, when he is visited by a young woman and her brother on the run from officials, and he is forced by the circumstances to provide the woman with refuge while her brother leaves to get help.
Co-directed by Kambuzia Partovi, who stars as the writer, the film’s narrative seems to build up like that of a classic feature film, but then part of the way through, becomes a self-reflective portrait, merging fact and fiction. The nature of the dialogue changes and characters appear and disappear, their relationships to each other shifting.
It is then that the creation-process of the film, as well as the allegorical layers at play, are appreciated and contextualised only with an awareness of Panahi’s past films and his current situation. One can appreciated it more for what it stands for in context than as a singular creative production.
Winning the Silver Bear for Best Script at Berlin international film festival, Closed Curtain has garnered mixed reviews.
Critics have called it a "remarkable work," and “a cause for celebration," praising the film’s low budget production, with the difficult task of handling limited lighting, and the fact that Panahi continues to create films in spite of the dangers.
Jay Weissberg of Variety however did not find in Closed Curtain what he was searching for, writing that "the multitude of thematic levels has the overall effect of weakening the film's impact.”
Regardless of these mixed views, the film has created yet another stir which led to the confiscation of the co-director Partovi and actress Maryam Moghadam's passports by Iranian authorities, preventing them from promoting Closed Curtain abroad.
Panahi has repeatedly received invitations to sit on juries at film festivals, including 2010 Cannes Film Jury. Unable to travel because of his sentence, an empty chair was left on stage to mark and honour his absence.
Indeed, to watch Closed Curtain with no prior knowledge of the director’s story is bound to be unfair for both the audience and the filmmaker.
When the creative mind is confined
Since his house arrest and creative ban, Panahi has illegally produced This is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, then his latest, Taxi, which won the Golden Bear -- the grand prize -- at this year’s Berlin International Film festival.
Though each of the three films unfolds in a different style, one might look at them as an auto-biographical series, with all of them exploring the limitations, impracticalities, and state of mind Panahi is experiencing as a filmmaker, his personal life and legal situation taking a thematic spotlight in one film after the other.
Panahi was awaiting the results of an appeal to court in 2011 when he made This is Not a Film, which he wrote, acted and produced in secret.
In it, he expresses his mental state explicitly, with no symbolism, in the form of a documentary video diary. The finished film was sent to Cannes on a flash-drive concealed in a cake, where it won the Golden Coach Prize.
In Closed Curtain, Panahi’s script is more elusive, employing symbolism with the narrative starting as a fiction, then developing into something more; a documentary in subject matter, while the means of storytelling remains subjective and surreal.
In Taxi, Panahi himself rides through town in a cab with a hidden camera filming conversations with his patrons.
Taxi appears to be an effort on Panahi’s side to work outside of himself, after he was forced to look inwards, an attempt to create something closer to his style of films produced before the ban, which were very different to his last three.
Banned from his primary subject matter, Panahi is trapped. In Closed Curtain, the audience with the camera are trapped indoors as well.
“The suffocation and lack of options is palpable in the increasingly nervous film,” Vadim Rizov writes in Filmmaker magazine.
“This is the world that they have created for me. I feel sometimes I’m the prisoner of my own thoughts,” Panahi told Rizov in an interview.
Closed Curtain therefore is an examination of the creative mind when confined. The film offers itself simultaneously as an act of defiance and a cry for help, where art can be the escape route as well as the encompassing jail.