The three features that Jafar Panahi has completed so far-The White Balloon (1995), The Mirror (1997), and The Circle (2000)-interrelate and follow on from each other so gracefully and obviously that one is eager, almost anxious, to have one’s say about them before Panahi has time to come up with another that might throw the whole theory off. For the time being, an essay about Panahi’s films practically writes itself. All three take women as their central characters; all three take the plight of women as their subject, either allegorically or not so allegorically; and all three bear the mark of Abbas Kiarostami-Panahi is a disciple of Kiarostami (who wrote the story of The White Balloon) and his influence could hardly be more explicit in each film, from the approximate real-time in which they all play out to the self-conscious doubling-back-on-itself of The Mirror and the narrative elision of The Circle. Generally speaking, anything this critically convenient is highly suspect, a mark of artistic shallowness-the greatest filmmakers don’t fit so snugly in a box. But Panahi manages to wriggle free from these critical attempts to pin him down because of the urgency and conviction fueling his work. It’s not a lack of imagination or boldness that makes his work cohere so tightly, but a passionate, single-minded sense of purpose. His means are very much Kiarostami’s, but his ends are not.
In each film the distinction between master and disciple becomes clearer, even if the similarities proliferate. Kiarostami is the one who made Close-Up (1990) but the title of that film brings Panahi to mind. Kiarostami’s vision is a broader, more panoramic one. It’s Panahi who takes Kiarostami’s methods and innovations and directs them towards more specific, socially topical subjects. Panahi shares with Kiarostami a poetic sensibility, but he focuses it downwards, towards the street and the problems he finds there, rather than upwards and outwards-he’s a poetic journalist to Kiarostami’s poetic philosopher. The difference is clear from the titles of their films: .And Life Goes On (1991) (more accurately translated as Life and Nothing More), Taste of Cherry (1997), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)-these are philosophical titles for philosophical films. There’s nothing pretentious or facile about them-there’s conviction and true wisdom at their heart, and they’re always rooted in particulars. But Kiarostami films are unmistakably the fruit of contemplation, of abstract meditation, where Panahi’s films spring more directly from observation. The Mirror and The Circle, as their titles suggest, are more succinct, unyielding films, and their metaphors, in context, much darker and more foreboding.
Their visions are further made distinct by the different emotional tonalities that underline their films. Kiarostami’s films are anything but sunny-.And Life Goes On is about the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, Taste of Cherry is a long meditation on suicide, and The Wind Will Carry Us concerns a filmmaker waiting for an old woman to die. But each one of them is to some degree life affirming. He’s interested in the big picture, and from this perspective there’s reason to feel optimistic-life will go on. But Panahi’s films, even at their lightest, leave a more bitter taste in the mouth, because his films are about individuals and their lives here and now. Life may go on, but that’s not much consolation to someone living a life of suffering and tribulation.
The relationship between Kiarostami and Panahi isn’t just theoretical-it plays itself out right there in Panahi’s first film, The White Balloon, for which Kiarostami provided the story, which concerns the quest of Razieh, a young girl, to buy a cherished goldfish for the New Year’s celebration and the difficulties she faces along the way. It’s impossible to be sure about who contributed what exactly, but The White Balloon is certainly Panahi’s lightest film and the one that bears the closest connection to a particular Kiarostami movie-it’s a slightly thinner, less resonant version of Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987). Like the earlier film, it’s a story of a child’s journey through an adult world and it ends with the child’s triumph. But if The White Balloon mostly suffers in comparison to Where is the Friend’s Home?-it’s more charming but less substantial-there are several differences that suggest, in retrospect, that Panahi’s distinct identity was already remarkably fully formed.
At the time it may have seemed trivial that The White Balloon takes place in Tehran rather than in a rural village. But it’s highly significant that Panahi has set each of his three films in Tehran, in contrast to Kiarostami (a native of Tehran), whose films almost always have rural, or at least suburban, settings. Kiarostami’s films are always rooted in the concrete, in specific characters, places, objects. But by locating his stories outside of the city, there’s a sense in which they’re disconnected from a specific society, rendered universal and timeless. Panahi’s films have their allegorical significance as well, but they get their hands dirtier-they’re more immediately concerned with modern Iran, with the here and now.
The other immediately obvious difference between Where is the Friend’s Home? and The White Balloon is the main character’s gender. It’s not clear that this was Panahi’s inspiration rather than Kiarostami’s, but, two pictures later, it’s a fact that all of Panahi’s films feature female protagonists while none of Kiarostami’s do. There could be any number of reasons why Panahi prefers female leads while Kiarostami does not. But certainly, in an Iranian film and with Iranian social values and tradition as the point of reference, a male protagonist can more easily represent humanity in general than can a female. Given the status of women in Iran, to put a female at the center of a film is almost automatically to take on a great deal of social and political baggage. There’s no suggestion in Kiarostami’s work that he’s uninterested in women or that he’s unsympathetic to their plight in Iranian society. But perhaps he chooses not to put a female at the center of his films precisely because he doesn’t want their universality weighed down by such ‘baggage’. Panahi, as his later films prove, is only too happy to take on this weight.
Both these differences take on significance only after considering Panahi’s later films. But there’s one difference that makes itself clear from the beginning-The White Balloon ends on a much darker note than any of Kiarostami’s films. At the very end, in a strange and unexpected maneuver, Panahi abandons Razieh and her brother and concentrates instead on a minor character, an Afghani boy who helped them retrieve their money but doesn’t get to take any part in their celebration. If The White Balloon, allegorically speaking, is a movie about outsiders-the children are outsiders in an adult world-then Panahi ends by shifting our attention to an outsider among outsiders. As clear as Kiarostami’s influence is in The White Balloon, it’s at this moment that the two filmmakers’ paths diverge-where Kiarostami would pull back and contemplate the big picture, Panahi zooms in on a socially specific detail. Paradoxically, the zooming-in is Panahi’s way of zooming-out-the emphasis on this marginal character (which is not just an afterthought-it’s the Afghani boy who’s in possession of the white balloon of the title) hints at a breadth and a depth that the film hasn’t previously shown. But Panahi’s big picture is a social one, not a philosophical one.
The Mirror is a sneaky, fascinating film, one that, under the cover of Kiarostami’s own methods, represents Panahi’s first confident step along his own path. This time he marshals the self-consciousness and the blurring of documentary and fiction that have become a Kiarostami (and more broadly an Iranian) trademark, but produces a sort of critique of The White Balloon. The first half of The Mirror seems like nothing more than a variation on the earlier film: a young girl’s mother fails to pick her up from school so she sets out on her own through Tehran trying to make her way home, and we follow along every step of the way, a little girl trying to navigate her way through a disinterested, adult world. But about half-way through, during a scene on a bus, the child, an adorable little kid with one arm in a cast (a detail that seems like a bit much at first) looks at the camera for a split second. A voice from behind the camera says, “Mina, don’t look at the camera,” at which Mina, the actress playing the child, throws a fit, tearing off the cast and storming off the bus screaming, “I don’t want to act anymore.” The brilliance of this maneuver lies not so much in the self-reflexivity of the moment but the ease with which the film continues where it left off, no longer the story of a little girl trying to get home from school but of a little girl trying to get home from a film shoot. The story continues almost uninterrupted, but with a crucial shift in perspective and context having just taken place. The rest of The Mirror consists of the film crew filming Mina, who’s still wearing her mike, from a bus at a distance as she makes her way home. The movie has become a White Balloon with the filmmakers in an antagonistic, almost menacing, relationship to the little girl at the center.
Iranian films have been playing these sorts of games for years, freely mixing aspects of documentary and fiction filmmaking and refusing to draw clear distinctions between the two, at least since Kiarostami’s Close-Up and .And Life Goes On. And films like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Moment of Innocence (1996) have taken as their subject the sometimes antagonistic, exploitative relationship between a filmmaker and his or her actors. But The Mirror is more than a gloss on these earlier films; Panahi expands on and develops their themes. It would be a mistake, though, not to mention his first and most basic contribution-his remarkable cinematic sense. The Mirror is full of allegorical substance, but this subtext wouldn’t be anything more than academic if the surface weren’t so entertaining, if there weren’t a great deal of pleasure to be had just by the playing out of the movie’s conceit, the planting of the mike, the effort involved in tracking Mina, and all the other technical difficulties involved in keeping the film going. All Panahi’s films are charged with a very urban vitality, a love of the streets and of the people that inhabit them, and one of the incidental pleasures of all three of his films is the portrait of Tehran that emerges from them. Panahi does amazing things with sound design, embedding his films in an aural landscape of city noises-honking car horns, passing vehicles, street musicians, radio and TV transmissions-that suggest the sea of activity and human life his characters inhabit and that give his films their remarkable sense of presence.
What makes it clear that Panahi is co-opting Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf’s earlier innovations for his own purposes, rather than simply plagiarizing from them, follows from his decision to cast a little girl in the central role. In both The White Balloon and The Mirror, this decision takes nothing away from any of the broader implications of the film but grounds it all in Panahi’s observation of concrete social realities. In The White Balloon, the child’s struggle in an adult world still suggests the struggle we all face in trying to move through life, but more specifically and urgently, it parallels the experience of women in a male-dominated world. In The Mirror, Mina may represent any number of things, but on the most immediate, urgent level, she is a girl, and there’s something very disturbing about her struggle with the film-crew. The Mirror is a charming and apparently lighthearted film because Mina is so appealing and crafty, and because she tries to and eventually succeeds in asserting her independence-The Mirror ends with Mina finding her way home, tearing off the mike, and slamming the door, leaving the crew powerless to continue. But she can assert herself only by rejection, and finally she frees herself from Panahi only by shutting herself in.
If The Mirror was a sort of self-critical remake of The White Balloon, The Circle follows almost as directly from The Mirror-it’s a grown-up Mirror, on both sides of the camera. In an interview, Panahi, asked about the genesis of The Mirror, recounted, “One time I saw an old woman who was sitting on a bench, with her purse on her lap, looking into space. This image struck me quite strongly. I thought about this woman’s life. I thought that she was in a closed circle, and was unable to escape from this circle.” (1) And this strong connection between the two films, this evidence that The Circle is more of a distillation of The Mirror than a departure from it, is present in The Mirror itself-the film opens with a circular shot, starting from the entrance to Mina’s school on one street corner, and following one figure after another as it pans around the traffic intersection back to Mina alone at the entrance, waiting for her mother. It may not register at the time, but here is a vivid sign that Panahi, as light a touch as he shows in The Mirror, already sees his heroine trapped within a circle.
Panahi has also acknowledged, in a later interview, that the question in his mind while making The Circle was this: “[T]hese two children, who tried so hard to achieve what they were after [in The Mirror and The White Balloon], as they grow up, will they keep the same kindness?” (2) One thing is for sure-as The White Balloon and The Mirror grow up, maturing into The Circle, their charm and light-heartedness, their crowd-pleasing characteristics, fall away almost entirely. The Circle is an unrelentingly dark film, one that does away with philosophizing and self-reflexivity, and whose meaning, more than in The White Balloon or The Mirror, lies on the surface. That’s not to say that it has no allegorical quality, but its allegorical meaning is closely related to its surface meaning. The Circle follows four different women, the story of one leading into the story of the next, all of whom are fleeing from or desperately avoiding jail terms. But these women aren’t stand-ins for anything theoretical-if they’re stand-ins for anything it’s simply for other women like themselves, women who are not necessarily ex- or escaped-prisoners but who live as if they were. They may be representative but they’re not symbols, and thanks in part to the actresses and in part to Panahi’s sensitivity, there’s no mistaking them as such. The beauty of The Circle lies in its devotion to these women, its refusal to burden them with significance or to ensnare them in any sort of plot mechanics. The little plot there is in The Circle is stubbornly de-emphasized-almost every bit of crucial information is withheld, and in scene after scene, Panahi trains his camera on his main characters even (especially) when the plot, such as it is, abandons them. In the first part of the film, for instance, in which two young women who have just escaped from prison wander the streets to raise enough money to buy bus tickets to their village, Arezou, the older and more experienced one tells Nargess to wait for her outside a building while she goes inside to follow up on a lead. We see Arezou enter the building, climb the stairs, and encounter various people, all from Nargess’s perspective, and when Arezou disappears from sight, Panahi sticks with Nargess while she waits, wandering down the street, window-shopping, watching several street-musicians.
Quite a bit of The Circle consists of simply spending time with the characters like this, and it works because Panahi and his actors create characters that are worth spending time with. As we move from one woman to the next in The Circle, they become more experienced and less innocent, and the movie becomes more convincing and free of incident. As beautifully realized as it is, the first section of the film is the weakest-there’s something theatrical and contrived about Nargess’s innocence, her faith in a better life, and the story-line (her attempt to escape Tehran for her hometown) seems more contrived than the later sections. By the last section, which centers on a woman who has been arrested for solicitation, we know only that the woman is a prostitute-her story and even her name are a mystery. Her part of the film is the shortest and simplest, consisting almost entirely of a long ride in a prison-bound police van, most of which Panahi shoots from one set-up – a medium close-up of the prostitute calmly, emotionlessly gazing out the window at the rainy night. In this scene, everything extraneous has been removed, leaving only a profound, almost tactile sense of presence. There’s nothing to stand in the way of our observing the woman, entering into her thoughts and feelings, and absorbing her situation. Everything is left to the imagination, but our imagination is given so much space in which to expand and do its work that more is conveyed than if it were spelt out. In The Circle, the oppression that women in Iran (and elsewhere) suffer is never simply theoretical-it’s not a contention or an idea, it’s an experience.
In the context of Panahi’s career, The Circle is especially powerful because it is present, in some form, in each of the two previous films. Watching all three is like watching a photograph develop-the image appears faintly at first and slowly becomes more and more distinct and well-defined. And as it does, everything in which the image seemed embedded, everything that was not the final image, falls away-humor, allegory, self-consciousness. As dark as The Circle may be, the darkest story Panahi has filmed is the one told by all three of his films together, the story of a little girl’s maturation, of Razieh in The White Balloon becoming Mina in The Mirror, the awareness dawning that her freedom and identity are threatened; and then continuing to develop into Nargess in The Circle, whose relative youth and innocence lead in steps to the resignation and disillusionment of the prostitute. It’s a story whose progress is inexorable and tragic, but Panahi’s films are never deadening; they’re not pills to be swallowed. His vision is a clear-eyed and unsentimental one, but he refuses to smother his characters in dire conclusions. The women of The White Balloon, The Mirror, and The Circle are sentenced to swim upstream in life, and possibly even to drown; but devoted as he is to conveying this struggle, Panahi is not a despairing, pessimistic filmmaker because his characters are so alive. His films are not life affirming like Kiarostami’s-Kiarostami finds affirmation in existence itself, in the flow and order of things. Life in Panahi’s films is, finally, something to be endured, not savored; but his films are fueled by an admiration for the people, specifically the women, doing the enduring, for the craftiness and determination they muster in the face of adversity.