An Iranian Director Enters a Circle of Women
By Joan Dupont
International Herald Tribune
September 21, 2000, Thursday
TORONTO -- The Toronto International Film Festival, which started as
a modest noncompetitive event 25 years ago, has become a window on world
cinema. Other festivals award trophies, Toronto - a giant shopping mall
- markets exotic dreams and holds promise of riches around the corner.
John Woo and Wong Kar- Wai took their first steps to international recognition
here, and Deepa Mehta calls Toronto home. Piers Handling, the festival's
director, notes the steady ascent of Asian film. ''It's no surprise to
me that cultures that have a strong literary or verbal culture, such as
Iran and China, countries under economic or social stress, are making some
of the best movies in the world,'' he said.
Jafar Panahi, director of ''Dayereh'' (The Circle), which made its North
American debut at the festival, also thinks that the strength of Iranian
film is rooted in an ancient storytelling culture: ''We are thousands of
years old, like China; we ruled once,'' he said. ''Things have changed
and will change again. Ours is a cinema of humanity that people all over
the world can recognize. It stands out from the mountain of commercial
''The Circle'' won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, an astonishing
coup for a movie made without stars, special effects, sex or violence.
Panahi, 40, born in Mianeh to a working-class family, meted out his words
carefully. For him, success abroad is an uncertain blessing; the film has
yet to be released in Iran.
''In Venice, for the first time, the critics and the jury agreed,''
he said. ''Toronto has responsive audiences, and I got emotional and thoughtful
reactions. It's a film that takes a while to digest.''
''The Circle,'' which took three years to make, is about seven women
released from prison only to find themselves confined by the world outside.
''In fact, they have left one prison to go into a bigger prison,'' the
director said. ''You don't know what they were in jail for, it doesn't
matter. What matters is they try to escape, to enlarge their circle. It's
not just a film about women; it's human to want to expand - that's how
we improve socially, scientifically and emotionally, that's how men go
to the moon.''
Shot on the streets of Teheran, in crowded markets and bus stations,
without such frills as Steadicams and extras, and sometimes without permits,
making the movie was a difficult odyssey. Unlike his previous ''The White
Balloon,'' which focused on a little girl, the innocents in ''The Circle''
are oppressed women, a subject rife with taboos. In Panahi's movie, a single
woman in Iran today cannot travel unaccompanied or without permission from
a male relative. She cannot smoke a cigarette in public. The characters
in the film, desperate to break away from domineering fathers, brothers
or husbands who have taken second wives in their absence, are ready to
lie, to abort, to abandon their children, to resort to prostitution. Each
woman has her moment on screen, but you never know where she comes from
or what happens to her when she vanishes. An
nspoken camaraderie unites the women and their stories.
The film opens in a maternity ward and ends back in jail. ''The idea
came from a news item I read about a woman who killed herself and her two
little girls,'' Panahi said. ''Some stories affect you so deeply, you want
to make a movie.''
He wrote a script, but admits that he was also inspired by his actresses
- mostly nonprofessionals - to improvise at times. ''I was with my wife
in a park when I saw a woman who was the exact image of a character in
my head. I invited her to pass a screen test and hired her on the spot.''
Nargess Mamizadeh plays Nargess, a teenager with bruised eyes, determined
to rejoin her village.
Although Panahi was an assistant to Abbas Kiarostami on ''Through the
Olive Trees'' and Kiarostami wrote the screenplay for ''The White Balloon,''
their paths have since diverged. Kiarostami delves into the mysteries of
almost empty villages and landscapes, while Panahi trains his eye on the
harsh urban scene, reported in documentary detail. ''I enjoyed working
with Kiarostami, as I enjoyed working with other directors - each has his
own style of filmmaking,'' he says.
Panahi feels he can express himself most fully and reach people through
directing. He studied at Teheran's College of Cinema and Television. ''I
fell in love with each of the great directors and studied their styles
to see how they could be translated,'' he said. ''I liked studying Hitchcock
to see if he made any mistakes.'' He does not like to dwell on his problems
in making ''The Circle.'' ''Now the film is born, '' he says, ''we don't
want to think of painful things - they belong to the past.'' During the
shooting, rumors spread that the film had touched on sensitive subjects
and might run into censorship.
''Perhaps this is not the usual Iranian film with metaphors,'' said
Hengameh Panahi (no relation to the director), the head of international
sales for ''The Circle.'' ''But Jafar has not made a political film, that's
not his job. An artist creates a piece of art - he makes a movie just like
any other director. Critical or social implications come out of the context.
What counts is that he got permission to make the film and to take it out
of the country.''
''As Jafar portrays it in the film, everything is forbidden, therefore,
everything is allowed,'' she added. ''It depends on how creative you are.
Like the young girl who isn't allowed to buy a bus ticket, but finds a
way. And this is why the country is so creative, because nothing is allowed,
and it's up to you to find your way, to make it possible.''
The director, who has four sisters, is proud of the strength of his
characters, women ''unafraid of persisting in getting what they want.''
There is another, unseen character whose name is called out in the opening
scene in the maternity ward, and evoked again, in the final shot, bringing
the film full circle. ''She is significant: Her name is Solmaz Gholami,
and she has just given birth to an unwanted baby girl in the first scene.
Her in-laws will be furious, for they expected a boy.'' Solmaz is named
after Panahi's daughter. ''I'll never forget the day she was born,'' he
said. ''It was 12 years ago and I was at the university defending my thesis.
When I heard that my baby girl was born - I already had a son - I ran all
the way to the hospital.''