The Circle

The Circle is screening at the 50th Melbourne International Film Festival. For more details, visit the MIFF website.

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Jafar Panahi, born in 1960 in Mianeh, Iran, was ten years old when he wrote his first book, which subsequently won first prize in a literary competition. It was also at that young age that he became familiar with filmmaking: shooting films on 8mm, acting in one 8mm film and assisting in the making of another. Later, he took up photography. On being drafted into the military, Panahi served in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-90), and during this period, made a documentary about the War which was eventually shown on TV. After his military service, Panahi entered university to study filmmaking, and while there, made some documentaries. He also worked as an assistant director on some feature films. After his studies, Panahi left Tehran to make films in the outer regions of the country. On returning to Tehran, he worked with Abbas Kiarostami as his assistant director on Through the Olive Trees (1994). Armed with a script by his mentor, Kiarostami, Panahi made his debut as a director with The White Balloon (1995), and subsequently went on to make The Mirror (1997) and his most recent film, The Circle (2000).

On the surface, Panahi’s films offer a variation of neo-realism, Iranian-style, by capturing, in his own words, the “humanitarian aspects of things”. But watching the director’s latest film The Circle (currently doing its rounds on the international film festival circuit after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year), one can’t help but feel that his humanitarian cinema is a cloak, masking an even greater obsession. His motif of the circle – the camera beginning from a single point and revolving around characters only to return to the point where it began – aptly describes that obsession, expressed as much as possible through the form of the plan séquence (a long uninterrupted take). The circle is both a metaphor for life as well as a form that the director has subscribed to as his most representative style. Stressing the equal importance of both form and content, Panahi asserts that his work is about “humanity and its struggle”, or the need for human beings to break through the confines of the circle.

In his own rather startling way, Panahi’s films redefine the humanitarian themes of contemporary Iranian cinema, firstly, by treating the problems of women in modern Iran, and secondly, by depicting human characters as “non-specific persons” – more like figures who nevertheless remain full-blooded characters, holding on to the viewer’s attention and gripping the senses. Like the best Iranian directors who have won acclaim on the world stage, Panahi evokes humanitarianism in an unsentimental, realistic fashion, without necessarily overriding political and social messages. In essence, this has come to define the particular aesthetic of Iranian cinema. So powerful is this sensibility that we seem to have no other mode of looking at Iranian cinema other than to equate it with a universal concept of humanitarianism.

The Circle works on the level of interpreting “humanitarian events in a poetic or artistic way,” as the director himself defines his own version of neo-realist cinema. But the film is a far bolder work than most recent Iranian films; and one measure of its boldness is the fact that it is banned in Iran. It chronicles the stories of seven women, not all of whom are connected to each other, but whose fates are invariably interrelated through a circle of repression. The film works as a riveting, compelling testament about the lowly status of women in Iranian society, and about the subtle means with which Iran as a whole exercises its repression over the female sex. Panahi is, however, ambivalent about the political content of The Circle. In the following interview, it comes as no surprise that Panahi prefers to accentuate the human dignity of his characters – a human right that seems trivial in the context of Western society but one which is readily denied in unexpected circumstances and situations, as Panahi himself found out, to his cost. On his way to the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema on 15 April, 2001, after having attended the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Panahi was arrested in JFK Airport, New York City, for not possessing a transit visa. Refusing to submit to a fingerprinting process (apparently required under U.S. law), the director was handcuffed and leg-chained after much protestations to US immigration officers over his bona fides, and finally led to a plane that took him back to Hong Kong. As far as is known, this incident was not reported in any major US newspaper (1), even though The Circle was being shown in the United States at the time (another irony: for that film, Panahi was awarded the “Freedom of Expression Award” by the US National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. His letter to the Board is published in this issue.

This interview with Jafar Panahi was conducted in Hong Kong on 11 April on the occasion of the 25th Hong Kong International Film Festival, which presented The Circle, among other new Iranian films. On being invited to the Festival, the director encountered problems in securing a visa from the Chinese embassy in Tehran to enter Hong Kong (a fact that he made known to his audience whilst introducing The Circle). He was granted a visa only upon the intervention of the Hong Kong Festival which made clear to the embassy that Panahi was an eminent film director and that his visit to the territory was purely a cultural one. Clearly, the case of Jafar Panahi illustrates a modern paradox: his nationality is no guarantee of decent, “humanitarian” treatment outside of Iran (the country being demonized by the international community, so to speak), even though Iranian cinema – with Panahi himself as one of its most distinguished exponents – is perhaps the most humanitarian in the world today.

Apparently, Panahi is very much focused on this paradox, taking every opportunity to decry the poor treatment (either perceived or real) that he has received when travelling out of Iran (in Hong Kong, he voiced his discontent with the Chinese embassy during interviews with the press; and similarly, the director has spoken out against his “inhuman” treatment by the US immigration authorities in JFK Airport). Through his films, Panahi expounds the humanity of all his characters, good or bad, expressing the fundamental need for decent, humanist behaviour on the part of all. An indication of his focus may be gleaned from the interview itself. For instance, I began the interview by asking Panahi to define the aesthetics of Iranian cinema as he saw it. Perhaps a bit put off by the more intellectual tone of my question, Panahi went on to say that the aesthetics of Iranian cinema was married to the realistic, the actual: “the humanitarian aspects of things.” Although the interview was conducted with the help of an interpreter, I could sense Panahi’s stalwart personality, his total conviction about “humanity and its struggle”, and his pride over what he has achieved in Iranian cinema. The case of Jafar Panahi will not be closed for a long while yet.

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Stephen Teo: I would like you to begin by talking about the aesthetics of Iranian cinema. What I am struck by in all the Iranian films we have seen is the fact that they are very close to being a kind of documentary reality of Iran. But on the other hand, they’re very beautiful to look at, unlike most realist-based cinemas – beautiful in the sense that they’re not rough, shot with hand-held cameras with no lights, such as the neo-realist style of Italian cinema after the war. Could you give a definition of the aesthetics of Iranian cinema? How does it differ from the neo-realist style, for example?

Jafar Panahi: The Iranian cinema treats social subjects. Because you’re showing social problems, you want to be more realistic and give the actual.the real aesthetics of the situation. If the audience feels the same as what they see, then they would be more sympathetic. Because you’re talking about the humanitarian aspects of things, it will touch your heart. We talk about small events or small things, but it’s very deep and it’s very wide – things that are happening in life. According to this mode, it has a poetic way and an artistic way. This may be one of the differences between Iranian movies and the movies of other countries: humanitarian events interpreted in a poetic and artistic way. In a world where films are made with millions of dollars, we made a film about a little girl who wants to buy a fish for less than a dollar (in The White Balloon) – this is what we’re trying to show.

Whatever shows the truth of the society, in a very artistic way – that will find its own neo-realism. But this depends on the period. In Italy, neo-realism was defined by its time after the war. And now in Iran, that kind of neo-realism is disappearing.

ST: I would like to ask about your use of the idea of the circle, in The Circle and also in The White Balloon. As in The Circle, The White Balloon also uses the motif of the circle. We watch in the beginning something happen and then it’s like drawing a circle, it connects with a character, an event and then it comes back to the circle. So what is it about this use of the circle that appeals to you?

JP: In the first plan-séquence in The White Balloon, the camera starts from those people who’re playing the tambourines as they enter a shop. Somebody comes out of the shop and the camera follows him and then there’s a jeep and the camera follows the jeep. The camera then arrives at a woman who goes to a balloon seller. If you have followed anyone of these people, you would have arrived at the same point. It is like a wall within which they are living together, and their lives are intertwined. That little girl is like an excuse, that all these lives can be touched. But these are the lives of children. Through the eyes of children, it’s a much nicer world that they see, because children are in a world where they are not really aware of the difficulties of adults. They’re trying to achieve their ideals. But in the life of adults, like in The Circle, the characters come out of idealism and they’re more realistic – they are the same children but now they have grown up and they see the world with realistic eyes.

All three films, The White Balloon, The Mirror and The Circle, are like full cycles – or circles – where the characters are facing up to problems, and they are trying to get out of their boundaries. In The Circle, we’re specifically talking about, addressing, these cycles. The form also has become like a circle. We start from an opening and we go back to the same point. We start from a birth and we go through darkness . in this movie we start from one birth, the birth of a human being, and we go back again to this same point. I had the idea of this form from a racetrack, like running a 400m relay. The runners come back to the first point. If they win they win together, if they lose they lose together. But in reality it’s the victory of one person.

Coming back to your first question: why is Iranian film so beautiful? When you want to say something like this and then you add an artistic form to it, you can see the circle in everything. Now our girl has become an idealistic person and thinks that she can reach for what she wants, so we open up a wide angle and we see the world through her eyes, wider, we carry the camera with the hand and we are moving just like her. When we get to the other person, the camera lens closes, the light becomes darker and it becomes slower. Then we reach the last person, there’s no other movement; it’s just still. If there’s any movement, it’s in the background. This way, the form and whatever you are saying becomes one: a circle both in the form and in the content.

ST: So the form of the circle is both a metaphor for life as well as your own style of filmmaking?

JP: Yes.

ST: When you have this circle, there’s a lot of repetition. You watch the characters doing the same thing every time. And this is something that appears not only in your films but also in many other Iranian films that I’ve seen, for example in Kiarostami’s films: he always repeats and repeats.

JP: Normally, an artist has one thing to say, and this is being expressed in different ways. But you don’t see this as all being in the same shape. I’m making films about humanity and its struggle. This human being is trying to open up the circle that he encounters. Once when he is a child, and sometimes as an older person. This is what is being said in The White Balloon, that is, the understanding of a child. There might be ten other movies like that: they all have the same theme but you will enjoy each of them in a different way. In literature, there is also the same thing – for example, Garcia Marquez of 100 Years of Solitude. He’s always talking about the same subject but in a different way. All artists are the same: we talk about one subject but in different ways. This is not repetition. This is the way they express it.how they see the world.

ST: I take your point, particularly when I’m watching your films. I see characters reacting, showing different emotions; so although there is repetition within the circle, I see that the characters, their emotions and gestures are different. Are you more concerned with human behaviour or are you more concerned with the narrative?

JP: We must contain all. It’s what we accept from this that is important. It’s both of these that make an identity. Two different things: the things that are said and the things that are acted are two different things. Sometimes they’re similar. This is how you understand the personality of the person. You have to focus on both of these so that you get the character.

ST: In The Circle, which character do you identify with most?

JP: I like all of them in different ways, that’s why I created them. The first girl who is young and very idealistic. It’s what comes out of her age. Or the last person who has come to the end of her life and has accepted the conditions of her life. All of them are very important. But I myself don’t like to think of a person accepting his or her conditions in life. I prefer that even in a closed circle, they still try to break out of that circle. But I accept that I have to be realistic. I have to accept that in a society there are people who accept their conditions.

ST: The subject matter of The Circle is controversial. You mentioned that the film is still banned in Iran. In fact when I was watching the film, I realized that through the characters, there’s a lot of fear about the system, the establishment, the police. The women can’t smoke; they have to wear the Chador; they seem to want to hide every time. This is all very clear from watching the film. Did you deliberately want to make a statement about the political situation in Iran?

JP: I have to tell you again that I’m not a political person. I don’t like political movies. But I take every opportunity to comment on the social issues. I talk about the current issues. To me it’s not important what is the reason for what has happened. Whether it’s political reasons or geographical reasons: these are not important – but the condition, the social issues. It is important to me to talk about the plight of humanity at that time. I don’t want to give a political view, or start a political war. I think that the artist should rise above this. Political movies have limited time. After that time, it doesn’t say anything anymore. But if the whole thing is said in an artistic way, then it doesn’t have a time limit. So it doesn’t really serve a political purpose. Then it can be everlasting, for always, and it could be for anywhere. But I know that politically, with the film authorities, with any kind of film that has some political background in it, they would disagree with. And for this reason, that is what the problem is.

ST: Still, your film makes a very strong statement about the problems that women face in Iran.

JP: Yes, I agree with that.

ST: So that is humanitarian of course, but it’s also political.

JP: Yes, I agree with that. It has the elements. It all depends on how you look at it. If a person has only political views, then he will only see the political. But if you are a poet or an artist, then you see other things as well in the movie. If you are a socialist, you see political or economical or whatever different points of view. You mustn’t look at a film with only one point of view. If you want to see The Circle as political, then it is one of the most political movies in Iran. By political, I mean partisan politics. But even the police, I didn’t want to show them as bad. In the first instance, you are afraid of the police. Because you are looking at them from the point of view of someone who is now in prison. And normally you see him in a long shot, but when they come nearer and you see them in a medium shot, you can see their human faces. Then it comes down to “Do you need any help”. But he goes back again and becomes frightening. If I were being political, then I would always show the police as dangerous or bad persons.

ST: In a long shot.

JP: In a long shot.I would show them rough. A political person can only see black or white. But I intertwine the tones. This is where the humanitarian eye comes in. I don’t want to bring somebody down or say, “Death to this, or life to that.”

ST: I’ve seen The White Balloon and The Circle: they’re both films about women. Obviously you feel a lot about the problems of women.

The Mirror

JP: I don’t really know – but probably it was due to the fact that my first film was made with a very low budget, and I thought it would be easier to work with children. I thought that filming with children would meet with fewer problems with the censors. Perhaps too, at that time, I had my own children, and it went automatically down that road. I have both a boy and a girl and I can see that the girl can strike up relationships in an easier, milder way. So I thought that a girl could give a better impression. Then when I finished the film and I started The Mirror, I began to think about what happens now that the girl has grown up in society. And then automatically, it became a movie about women. It started unconsciously but now the question is settled.

ST: So now you have made a trilogy about women. They are all linked.

JP: I agree.

ST: Shall we talk a bit about the process of making your film? You use both amateurs and professionals?

JP: I haven’t really tried to be either this way or that way. I just choose. I just try to see what roles I have and who they would fit. I look for the person who fits what is in my mind. I know that to bring the professional and amateur together is very difficult. The acting must be on the same level. At this point, normally it is more difficult for the professional, because the professional has to come down and adapt to the level of the amateurs. The amateur is not role playing but doing what comes naturally. So the professional has not to give a performance, but to learn how to be more natural.

ST: So how long did it take to make your film?

JP: 53 days from beginning to end. In the middle, there were about 18 days when we didn’t work, either because the weather wasn’t good or .There were 37 days of filming.

ST: Were there a lot of rehearsals?

JP: The first plan-séquence was repeated 13 times.the shot from the hospital to the street. The cameraman would film the scene and take the shot back to the laboratory to check it and then he would re-shoot it again. This was repeated 13 times until we got what we wanted. This is one of the difficulties of doing long sequences like this. If I had wanted to break it down, I could have done it in half a day. That sequence took about five days. There were seven to eight such long takes in the film.

ST: Who conceived the script?

JP: Myself. Took about a year. Then, I wrote the different characters – where they come from and where they go to, which took about two months.

ST: Was it based on a story or a novel?

JP: Original script.

ST: And all your films are original scripts?

JP: Yes.

ST: That’s very remarkable. What about the photography? Do you handle the camera?

JP: I have a camera operator. But I do the editing.

ST: There are many elements in the film that remind me of folk culture. Like the end scene, where the prostitute is in the prison van and there’s a fellow prisoner, a man who starts to sing, reminiscent of folk music or folk culture. And also in The White Balloon where the girl comes out in the street and there’s the snake charmer. Do you consciously want to show all these elements?

JP: When you see the film with subtitles, you don’t understand the original language. If you could understand, you would know that everyone has a different accent, like a folk song or folk dance from a different part of Iran. These accents and these tones of folk culture also help to make the film more attractive. Tehran is a very big city and there are people from all over Iran living in the city. This is one of the features of a big city. The people in the film help one another so that they are believable and true, and sometimes I do this purposely – like the three girls who were playing their guitars – they’re speaking in the Azerbaijani language, and the young girl who is one of the three women in the beginning, also has an Azerbaijani accent. And when she’s sitting in front of the painting, and talking about the countryside that she sees in the painting, she’s actually talking about Azerbaijan. So there are all kinds of connections. That painting was something from Van Gogh, for example. I chose it because it was not a specific geographic place.it could be anywhere in the world, but it was inspired by an actual painting by Van Gogh. I wanted to say that where you want to be could be anywhere in the world.

ST: I want to ask about the three female characters in the beginning. I’m not sure what exactly they went to prison for.

JP: It doesn’t matter. It could be anything you want. That’s not important. It’s a very delicate point. If I had decided to give them some crime that they were guilty of, like something political or because of drugs, they would become specific persons. But they are not specific persons. You can have anybody there. Then the problem is a much larger problem. Maybe if it were a specific person there would be no censorship. But when it’s open to interpretation, then it’s more difficult. If it was a specific person, the censors can then say this person has this kind of crime, then it’s not a problem. Because I wanted the audience to think for themselves, I left it open to interpretation.

ST: What is your next project?

JP: This was such a difficult film for me. We wanted very much to show this film. In the past six months from the start of the first showing, I’ve always been travelling. I’ve been to many different countries in Asia, Europe, America, Africa.long trips. I haven’t had time to think about the next project.

ST: Having travelled all over the world now, do you think that being a filmmaker in Iran is much more difficult than in other countries?

JP: Every country has its own difficulties. In some countries, it’s a budget problem. In other countries, it’s political problems. And in some places, it’s a lack of knowledge about the movie industry. In some places, there are tools but there are no people. In other places, there are people but no tools to make films with. There are problems everywhere, in different shapes.

ST: Just to focus on Iran. For example, what are the censorship problems that you face?

JP: There’s censorship in Iran and China – both closed countries and closed societies.

ST: Is it much more difficult to want to make a film about women in Iran?

JP: It is a problem, but there are about sixty movies made every year in Iran, and ten or fifteen of them are about women. We have women directors, making movies about women. In a society governed by men, these problems do exist.

ST: Do you practise self-censorship?

JP: Never. Whatever I want to say, I try to say it. If I were my own censor, then I may not have any problems. At first they didn’t allow me to make the movie. We took about ten months. In the end, they gave me permission to make the movie. They gave me a letter and in the letter they said that after the film was made, they would evaluate it to see whether it could be shown. I forgot about the letter. I thought that I would make the movie first and then I decide what to do about the situation. If I had paid attention to the letter, I would have to be my own censor and maybe then, I would have been able to show my film in Iran.

ST: Would you call your film a documentary or a drama?

JP: It’s a drama that has become a documentary.

ST: Have you heard of the term “docu-drama”?

JP: I make my film, then you name it.

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The input and assistance of Mr. Shahrukh Borumand in the preparation of this article is gratefully acknowledged.


  1. For example, Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review of The Circle states that no major US newspaper made mention of this incident or reprinted Panahi’s statement to the US National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.

About The Author

Stephen Teo's latest book Wong Kar-wai is published by the British Film Institute. He is the author of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997) and is currently writing Johnnie Gets His Gun: The Action Films of Johnnie To, for the Hong Kong University Press.

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