Jafar Panahi’s films on women liberty are loved all over the world, but his own country made him a prisoner. Know the story of the man who never feared the regime.
Despite his house arrest and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, it is sheer love and passion that can create an unclassifiable gem like This Is Not A Film. A smuggled product, originally a documentary, was sent to the Berlin Film Festival where it was received warmly and valued immensely. The documentary was about Panahi’s life and was shot during his house arrest.
The Los Angeles Times, a famous newspaper in Los Angeles first published the news of Jafar Panahi’s home arrest and suppression. What could put a talented film director behind bars? The reason is, this film director belongs to Iran.
In an Islamic country like Iran, the practice of suppressing gender, class, cast and creed has made the country a place where the word “freedom’” is almost obsolete. Iran is one of those unfortunate countries that has been experiencing social injustice for years. Film directors have been suffering a similar fate for many years. The reason for their suffering is to suppress their voice that dares to go against all the orthodox practices followed by the patriarchal society.
Iranian writer, Azar Nafisi, in her thought-provoking book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, wrote: “We watch the women writhing in the patriarchal stranglehold. As more new laws are announced, the noose tightens.” Women are the sole sufferer as their rights are violated every now and then with such conservative norms.
Starting from the compulsion of wearing the hijab to banning drinking tea and watching sports, Iranian women have been suffering from such dominance for many years. They could not protest against these norms. The fear of getting tortured and punished meant their opinions were silenced. Iranian women had no one to speak on behalf of them. However, celluloid became a medium from which ideas against tradition could be investigated.
The filmmakers of Iran have decided to rise up and build their own platform to seek justice for women. Their on-screen revolution is best known for its subtle aesthetic portrait of the life that can influence the viewers’ mind.
Jafar Panahi tops the list. A filmmaker accepting that a price might need to be paid in order to stay true to his art. Despite knowing the consequences, Panahi never stepped back from making films. His female-centric movies always earned him the wrath of the realm. However, as the saying goes: “The pen is mightier than the sword”; Panahi proved: “Aesthetic is mightier than slogans”. He conducted a sole revolution and created ripples in the government.
Here are four must-see films on women from Panahi that showcase and underline his unique form of neorealism, his attitudes to social reform, and redefinition of humanitarian themes in Iranian cinema. These films will remain milestones in world cinema.
The White Balloon (1995)
This was the first endeavour of the director after he assisted Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian director for a few years. The story of the film starts with a girl named Razieh, a 7-year-old who desperately seeks a goldfish for New Year. A desire, a wish, an urge to celebrate happiness; is it allowed for a girl in Iran? NO!
The little girl somehow convinced her mother to let her buy a goldfish and took a 500 Toman note from her. But, in an unfortunate turn of events, she lost the money. The rest of the film is all about her struggle of finding the note and buying the fish before the shops close. The White Balloon shows the world through the eyes of Razieh, the protagonist of the film. Her struggle to find out who is willing to help her and who is not, is all about realising the outer world.
Panahi chose to remain subtle and delicate in his first attempt at being vocal about women liberty.
The Mirror (1997)
This is another child-focused film with universal appeal, but it has something more to depict and think about as well. Making a film about a young girl in Iran is a curse indeed.
The story revolves around a girl, named Mina, who struggles to get back home as her mother does not turn up to take her. Hence, the little girl decided to take the journey alone. The film revolves around the day-to-day rhymes of life in the city of Tehran along with the girl’s desperate urge to reach home.
Panahi’s incomparable creativity was enriched in this pseudo-documentary. The film director revealed the concept of ‘reel within reel’ when he showed that the struggle of the little girl was actually the taking part in shooting a film.
Panahi showed in this film how a girl, merely 8, has the freedom of expression and also voices her opinion of not willing to act anymore. A girl, who is stubborn, independent and also wise in her childlike way, thrashes patriarchy when she refuses to face the camera and leaves the shooting set. Don’t you think it’s enough to convey the message of liberty to society?
The Circle (2000)
The desperate inner yearning to taste the tonic of freedom is expressed and exposed in this piece of art by Panahi. The film is set in a modern day society of Tehran where women are subjugated by the burden of patriarchal customs and other societal norms. The oppressed women struggle to overcome all constraints they face. Yet, the unending desire for freedom never leaves them and so is the torment. Free thinking women are sinners and prison is their ultimate destination. Panahi depicts stories of three different women and shows how patriarchy is smashing them repeatedly.
He stated in an interview that one day he read news about a woman committing suicide after killing her own two daughters. That inspired him to come up with the story of The Circle. The name is justified when he completes the “relay-race” and merges the story of three women at the end of the film. Panahi showed, women will always be in prison, whether it is a “small cage with four walls”, or the big prison outside the walls called “world’”.
This is a soul-stirring masterpiece where courage and resiliency are depicted and the hunger for liberty is also portrayed vividly. Now, the best part was the hardcore reality of society along with the desire for freedom that pinched the government so harshly that the film was baned in Iran.
1st shot: A gallery full of boys shouting their country’s name, holding national flags in their hands! A World Cup qualifying football match between Iran and Bahrain which is taking place in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.
2nd Shot: A distraught middle-aged man rides a cab looking for his teenage daughter who has left home to watch the football match in the stadium without his permission.
This is not a film about women liberty. This brilliant piece depicts how love or passion does not understand gender bias. A group of females, who are passionate football lovers, break the rule to attend the match in the stadium. The film aesthetically proved how being a woman in Iran is a crime. A pretty and young girl disguises herself as a male and boards a bus full of men. Her willingness to watch the match at any cost brought her to the stadium, but, she could not manage to get in the stadium, as police caught her at the gate.
She was not the only one; a group of women were also caught and held captive due to the crime that they had committed by loving a sport.
Sources suggest the director was inspired by his own daughter who went to watch a football match without his permission. Panahi, in his last film on women, portrayed how such constraints could not bar women from enjoying the match in the stadium.
Here, by using the game as a medium, Panahi explored how women rights are violated in the country. Women choose not to follow the rule and revolt in their own way. He proves how film can become an act of rebellion.
He is a sinner in his own country, but the whole world admires him for his act of bravery. That has made him a popular focus for students of film investigating world cinema and representations of women. Panahi’s endeavour to emancipate the tortured Iranian woman is an ongoing struggle. Many believe that he can definitely change society with his poignant formula to storytelling. Till then, let the revolution continue!