Last December, Iranian courts sentenced Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof to six years in prison and a 20-year ban from writing and directing films, speaking to foreign press and leaving the country—a definitive word on their lives as socially engaged artists. The filmmakers were convicted of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” That with the intention phrase is a chilling reminder of authoritarian soothsaying. The sentence came ten months after the men were first arrested for allegedly working on a film with pro-Reform sympathies (though one imagines even just acknowledging the Green Movement’s existence would have set off alarms). Most of the 19 apprehended in this initial raid were released in a matter of days, but Rasoulof was kept waiting two weeks and Panahi was only let out on bail on May 25.
As news of the harsh sentences travelled the wires during the Christmas week, the outcry was immediate and far-reaching. To be sure, both Panahi and Rasoulof’s movies are critical of inequity and hypocrisy, but their combined work hardly constitutes an insurgent cinema. That the sentencing went so far beyond “ordinary” blacklisting—something we in America know all about, after all—made it clear that this government will not tolerate even the suggestion of dissent. “The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for 20 years, but they cannot keep me from dreaming that in 20 years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking,” Panahi wrote in an open letter on occasion of last month’s Berlin Film Festival, where he was to have served as a juror.
As explained in recent reports by Anthony Kaufman, Michael Sicinski and others, the legal proceedings against Panahi and Rasoulof remain in a state of uncertainty. An aide to President Ahmadenijad made a statement that the president was unhappy with the severity of the sentences, but remained deferential to the judiciary’s authority. Many have interpreted mixed messages like these as evidence of dissension within the regime, though Panahi’s letter certainly makes it seem that he expects to serve the full sentence. It’s difficult to know how international attention might bear upon Panahi and Rasoulof’s legal appeals, especially in the now changed Middle East, but programmers around the world are screening their movies in solidarity with their social concerns as filmmakers. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents “Iran Beyond Censorship” concurrently with the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Among the fine titles being shown are Panahi’s Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006), along with the director’s 2010 short, The Accordion; Rasoulof’s most recent film, The White Meadows (2009); and a restored 35mm print of Abbas Kiarostami’s looking glass courtroom drama, Close-Up (1990). Kiarostami’s film, widely regarded as a masterpiece, has a bitter resonance in this context, as the lines between official reality and artistic interpretation seem sadly unmovable in Panahi and Rasoulof’s case
For those unfamiliar with Panahi’s atmospheric storytelling, Crimson Gold is an excellent place to begin. Kiarostami wrote the script, drawing inspiration from a news story of a Tehran pizza deliveryman who killed himself and a jeweler during a botched heist. The film opens with this climactic act of violence, though the fixed camera position from within the darkened jewelry store significantly de-dramatizes the scene. Right away, Panahi establishes the expressivity of offscreen space, both enriching the realism of the shot and also visualizing a collapsed existence. Beginning with this doomed endpoint casts a nervous pall over Panahi’s fluid neorealist style and has led many critics to note Crimson Gold’s affinity to American film noir. More specifically, Panahi’s film evokes those slightly paranoid, socially critical crime pictures dubbed film gris by Thom Andersen and Noël Burch—offbeat movies in which class inequity drives men to violence.
If Crimson Gold unfolds as a gritty picaresque rather than a psychological potboiler, that’s partly due to the detachment of non-professional actor (and real deliveryman) Hussein Emadeddin in the lead role. Class shades everything from casual conversation (a fellow pizza man is teased for his fancy new sneakers) to bitter showdowns (when Hussein and Ali first go to the jewelry store, the jeweler only speaks to them through a closed door), but there isn’t a narrow ideological filter guiding these exchanges—the friction is the point.
The film centers on two matched scenes in which Hussein’s deliveries are upended. In the first, he can’t make it upstairs—a vice patrol is guarding the entrance waiting to nab partygoers one by one as they exit the building. Absurdly detained by the chief on the street with his rapidly cooling pizzas, Hussein strikes up a conversation with an underage soldier. Panahi spins out what easily could have been a straightforward satire into a complex negotiation of social roles worthy of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion. The second delivery scene inverts the first: Now Hussein makes it to the door of a tony apartment and finds himself invited inside to listen to a man’s complaints about the two women who ordered the pizzas before abandoning him. Though callous in many ways, the rich man is a good host to Hussein. He’s distracted when one of the women calls, though, leaving Hussein to wander the palatial house with a bottle of liquor in hand. Wrapping back around to the scene of the crime from this lethargic scene is typical of Panahi’s open-ended narrations. Though the class dissonance of Hussein’s looking over Tehran from the rich man’s point of view is evident, the audience is left wondering where the individual’s crackup begins.
Offside suffers somewhat by comparison to Crimson Gold. More straightforwardly a “social problem” film, it lacks the earlier feature’s ambiguity and surreal sense of comedy. Still, the subtly of Panahi’s semi-documentary dramaturgy is richly apparent here, especially when one imagines the sentimental sop Hollywood would make of a story about women being barred from public sporting events—in this case, the Iranian national soccer team’s qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup. In the first and most classically neorealist of the film’s three acts, we follow a young woman’s tense approach to the stadium. She’s nabbed by a young officer just inside the gates and led up to a holding pen with a handful of other women passing as men (one with real chutzpah is in military dress). The film switches gears back to Panahi’s Grand Illusion mode, as the women try to reason with their captors who themselves resent being stuck with such a pointless duty.
Meanwhile, the soccer match unfolds entirely off screen but in something tantalizingly close to real-time. In the film’s final act, when the band of outsiders is bussed out to police headquarters as the game enters its final minutes, Panahi finds a poignant conclusion amidst the real-life revelry on the streets following the Iran team’s win. On the one hand, the exhilaration of victory overtakes everything—individual differences, social divisions, the film itself. At the same time, there’s a certain degree of melancholy that this collective outpouring isn’t directed towards the corrosive social norms illustrated in the preceding drama (it’s impossible not to think of Tahrir Square looking at the sequence today).
Contrary to Panahi or Kiarostami’s work, Rasoulof’s allegorical films freely diverge from mundane reality. The White Meadows unfolds as a series of parables taking place on different islands stretching Lake Urmia, a vast salt lake in northwestern Iran. The otherness of this landscape sparks hypnotic visions of cultish rituals on the different islands. Joining these episodes is an old man riding a dinghy between islands: we assume he is a doctor from his leather satchel, but inside the case is a set of vials he uses to collect tears. On each island, he finds some variation of the same scene: an individual sacrificed in the name of the group. A dead woman is exhumed from salt for burial; we don’t know how she died, but one villager claims that she was too seductive for the world of men. Another young woman is given as a bride to the sea, sent out on a raft to her watery grave; in the perverse ceremony that follows, the girl’s mother is congratulated on the marriage. An artist is forced to stare at the sun (atop a ladder no less) for having painted the sea red instead of blue.
The artist’s captor explains to the tear-collector that the community leader “doesn’t want him not to paint—he just wants him to paint correctly.” This call for social realism resonates clearly enough with Rasoulof’s compromised situation, though The White Meadows doesn’t close here. The painter ends up half-conscious on a desolate island-prison, but the last time he speaks, he can still see the sea. It’s a different color now, he explains, though he doesn’t say which.
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