The least favourite son of the ayatollahs
Financial Times - By Nigel Andrews
Sep 2, 2003
No mantelpiece should take such punishment. Jafar Panahi may be the most guerdoned Iranian filmmaker of his generation. In seven years he has collected a Camera d'Or at Cannes (The White Balloon), a Golden Leopard at Locarno (Mirror), a Golden Lion at Venice (The Circle) and half a dozen other major/minor baubles. Probably the only time the mantelpiece is cleared is when ayatollahs drop round for tea.
They don't like his work at all: especially the later dissident stuff. The Circle never opened in Iran, although Panahi mobilised press support for a months-long battle with the censors over his tale of three women prisoners, released into the community, who find that the greatest prison of all is their own country. "It was only thanks to the media that the film got to Venice at all," he says, while pointing out that since that time "16 or 17 independent newspapers in Iran have been put out of business or taken over by the government".
His new film, Crimson Gold, was smuggled into this year's Cannes Film Festival in a suitcase. Arriving in time to show on a sideshow's last day, it won the sideshow's main prize. Now he is arguing with the government over cuts.
In the story of a plump, ageing pizza-delivery boy experiencing mental meltdown, caused by stress and social humiliation in a capital city teeming with inequity and oppression, Panahi and his no less eminent screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami (maker of Ten and Taste of Cherries) spare no critiques. Greed, envy and class tensions are rife. Police and government stooges are everywhere, enforcing the rule of a punitive puritanism. In one extraordinary sequence the hero witnesses the harassment and successive arrests of partygoers leaving a middle-class apartment block. Some westerners, Panahi has learned after showing his film at Cannes and Edinburgh, have difficulty even understanding this scene.
"Here in the west you have parties, you drink naturally. In our country no one can drink alcohol. Women cannot socialise freely, even indoors, with men outside their family. The authorities object to my showing this scene. But my argument to them is: 'Listen, if you're against the situation that exists, why don't you stop doing it? And if you're for it, you should be proud my film shows you arresting people!' "
Panahi sits with me and a translator in a semi-darkened auditorium at the ICA in London, delivering tales and opinions I am amazed he can utter with impunity even 2,000 miles from home. His catalogue of government obstructions and perversities goes on, even when I mention the one movie he was able to show to his countryfolk, the lauded The White Balloon, a key work of New Iranian Cinema.
Though the film was passed uncensored in Iran, partly because its touching tale of a little girl losing a wad of money entrusted to her by mum to buy a goldfish was deemed a "children's story", Panahi was frustrated in his bid to win a Best Foreign Film Oscar. The government withdrew it from contention in protest against America's then well-publicised anti-Iranian propaganda campaign. "So again I had no control over what I could do with my movie," Panahi shrugs.
The White Balloon wasn't really a children's film at all. Its brimming fresco of street life, of the daily clash of hope and adversity in a Tehran where the well-heeled jostle with the hand-to-mouth, was reminiscent, like much modern Iranian moviemaking, of Italian neorealism.
Panahi accepts the comparison - in part. "In both cases you have nonprofessional actors and real locations. But that is because a similar set of historical circumstances produced a similar national cinema. The condition of Italy after the war created the atmosphere in which such filmmaking happens. In Iran too after the Iran-Iraq war in '88 there were restrictions and difficulties we wanted to talk about. Both cinemas tried to focus on real daily existence, to give a documentary picture of how people live."
Panahi once said: "There are no evil characters in my films." He still believes that evil, if it exists, is more a matter of social and political pressures than of people. "Each human being is formed of all the conditions that made him. Had I followed any other character in Crimson Gold, a policeman or a security guard, maybe I'd also have found out that they're living in conditions that compel them to accept things or do things they wouldn't if they felt free to choose."
The new film's protagonist is free after a fashion - "the final decision to act is the individual's" - but the director deliberately picked an actor whose lumbering heavy-lidded presence suggests the numbness and anomie of despair. "I always look for an actor in the field his character belongs to in the script. So we went to all the pizza-delivery places, and through the door of one came this huge guy whose presence, height, weight, slowness, voice convinced us he was the right guy."
In Hossein Emadeddin's performance a Wozzeck-like hero emerges, primal and almost pre-cognitive, his mental disequilibrium palpable. The actor himself, says Panahi, "was schizophrenic. He was on medication. This created problems during shooting [such as his not showing up on several days]. But maybe the tensions helped to get out of him what we wanted."
The film's climactic scene of a botched crime and murder, with horrifying payoff, was snatched from a real newspaper story. But its power on screen, intensified by being filmed in a single take, comes from the sense that it has surfaced from some grim, deep soup of human complexity and that the director has done nothing to enhance tragic reality with tricks of style or narrative.
"My teacher at film school used to say that when you make a shot you must have said everything you want to say by the end of it. I don't bombard the audience with different shots. I want them to concentrate, to enter in, to think. I don't want them to be aware of the camera or the editing process or the set. I want them to enter a world and see reality." http://search.ft.com/search/article.html?id=030903000950&query=iran&vsc_appId=totalSearch&state=Form