The Circle (Dayereh, Iran-Italy-Switz, 2000) and Offside (Iran, 2006)

We are watching you

Jafar Panahi was fortunate, I think, to be on the jury of this year’s Cannes film festival as it made his incarceration in Iran high profile and newsworthy so probably led to his release. The fact he was also on hunger strike accentuated the situation. His ‘crime’ was, reportedly, planning to make a film about last year’s disputed election in Iran. Was his arrest a tribute to the power of filmmakers or simply a symptom of the insecure feelings of an illegitimate government?

Panahi has anti-Iranian establishment form and these two films portray the ludicrous patriarchal aspects of Iran’s Islamic nation. The Circle starts with a mother worried her daughter will be divorced because the her newly-born grandchild is a girl and not the expected boy. The women are throughout restricted by what they can do because they don’t have a man’s permission. Hypocrisy reigns as – pictured above – a character is asked to make a phone call by a policeman just in case a husband answers the phone and the women are constantly verbally sexually hassled by men on the street.

Panahi’s genius is his use of realism as the camera, at the start, seems to wandering the streets capturing what’s going on. We’re often in the dark as to what’s happening (why were the women imprisoned?) just as we would be as external observers to the events. It’s also tightly structured, it begins and ends – like The Searchers – with an opening and closing of a door.

Not watching a football match

In some ways Offside is more audacious than The Circle as it was shot on location defined by both place and time. The ‘time’ being the day of a crucial World Cup qualifier and much of the film is shot at the stadium where the game took place. Brilliance all round from cast and crew to make this one work. Again the theme’s the subjugation of women – they are not allowed to watch the match as they might hear ‘bad’ language – and their sisterhood as they resist men’s power. While most of the men in The Circle are negatively represented, here we get to know the women’s guards and they are mostly fairly pathetic characters who are simply following orders.

Panahi shot the film hoping that Iran would win the game in order to have an upbeat ending. This contrasts with the bleakness of The Circle and it’s unfortunate that the earlier film seems to be the one that accurately portrays the conditions in Iran at the moment. And as I write this the news tells me that the Israelis are using their usual violent tactics in killing at least 11 people bringing supplies to the Palestinians. Until the Palestinian question is resolved (and I don’t mean Israel’s solution) then the mess to the Middle East will continue to destabilise the world.

Persepolis (France, 2007)

Youthful rebellion threatens the old

Youthful rebellion threatens the old

Animation’s starting to get the ‘adult’ appreciation it deserves; as are graphic novels. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography forms the basis of this excellent film. If ever the political was embedded in the personal then it’s in lives that live through revolutions; the Iranian one in ’79 in this case. By focusing upon the travails of a young girl growing up, the distant events become engaging.

The animation, drawing directly from the original, is terrific. This hectoring teachers become serpents; her unfaithful boyfriend is transformed from a ‘blond hunk’ to a zit-ridden nerd. The ‘mullahs’ come out of it badly; but certainly no worse than the British and Americans. It’s how Satrapi saw it and her vision rings true.

Ten (Iran-France, 2002)

Child as man

Child as man

Woman asserts independence

Woman asserts independence

Ten is terrific on both a formal level and in its content. Consisting of 23 hours of footage from two very small digital cameras attached to a car’s dashboard, edited down to 90 minutes, the film is anti-director; the mise en scene is the interior of the car and the passing landscape. Much of what we see and hear is improvised. However, there’s no doubting the clear message of the film, concerning a woman’s place in 21st century Iran.

The film doesn’t simply condemn Iranian society for its subjugation of women, it portrays the protagonist as complex and contradictory – as we all are. The boy, however, could do with strangling; he’s the only male present and its clear that the whining demands are typical of men who rely on women to do things for them – they want a wife for sex but also they want to keep their ‘mother ‘to look after them.

Ten can be regarded as an avant garde film in its anti-cinema stance, along with its materialist use of the lead-in as a countdown for each of the ten episodes. As Gonul Donmez-Colin points out, in Wallflower Press’ Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East (2007), here the director, literally at times, takes the back seat.

At Five in the Afternoon (2003, Iran)

A film made in Afghanistan focusing on women has to be seen. However, a tad disappointed; found the repetition on shoes a bit tiresome. Possibly seeing it after Osama was the problem; but most films would pale in comparison with that. (DVD)