Here’s an auteur whose love for cinema cannot be contained, in any way possible. His films are a rebellion, for rebels against intolerance and injustice. And it is precisely for this resistance Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi displayed that he got arrested and banned from writing, directing, and travelling by his government. And despite this, he continues to make films, from the closed confines of either his house, car or obscure locations around Tehran.
Panahi’s evolution, as a director and a person, is visible in every film of his, from 1995 to 2018. He continues to grow more creative, inventive, and even subversive — his fearlessness is aspirational and filmography awe-inspiring. His work is now out there for everyone to see, and you can stream them on Disney+ Hotstar.
The White Balloon (1995)
A seven-year-old girl and her elder brother go through hoops and hurdles to retrieve their mother’s money the former lost while trying to buy a “chubby” goldfish. The story, which seems rather simple, is threatening and gripping. Our sentiments constantly lie with the two children and their adventures — their fear, sadness, and joy are all palpable. This 1995 Camera D’Or winner is much in line with the Iranian New Wave. The documentary-style realism of Panahi’s cinematography adds rhythm to a prosaic city’s mundanity, where even a debut film seems like the work of a veteran.
The Mirror (1998)
A steely, first-grader, lost in the streets of a city too big for her, looks for her mother as she fails to pick her up from school. She drifts across town with a broken arm, jumping from one bus to another. But the film, with an unexpected set of turns, breaks away from the illusion of cinema. Panahi’s realist approach to films actually turns to reality — the straying child is, in fact, an actor. Iranian cinema, from director Abbas Kiarostami to Panahi currently, is known for this meta treatment of movies, where there’s a blurry distinction between the reel and the real. And The Mirror is a solid example of this.
The Circle (2000)
As a daughter is giving birth to a girl, the grandmother frets about the sex of her newborn. When trying to leave the city, a lone 18-year-old is denied a ticket for not having company. A pregnant woman is prohibited from getting an abortion without the consent of her man. This drama, banned in Iran, lacks a narrative plot — it relays the mantle of the story from one character to another. Panahi here unearths the everyday sexism of the country, of what it is like to be a woman in a society dominated by men.
Crimson Gold (2003)
It’s slow, unsettling, and bleak. The opening shot has a pizza delivery man shoot himself in the head inside a jewellery store as he ambushes its owner. And the remainder of the film is a character study of what leads up to that moment, how class-based injustice and ostracisation wrecked a man beyond repair. The film is equally psychological as it is political, we aren’t just shown how he is discriminated against, we see his visceral reaction to it at every point, his struggle and the mounting resentment.
Sport has the ability to transcend the barriers of sex and creed — the adrenaline is always overpowering, characters in the movie are even willing to say, “Let me watch the game and I’ll be a slave to you.” But women aren’t allowed in Tehran’s stadiums, the law is too afraid of what can happen to them amidst a fiery crowd. And in the film, while the women, posing as men, try to enter the stadium, Panahi interweaves their anxiety with the relatable urgency of watching a game. In the end, what freed the women were not champions of their rights, but the roistering escapism of a home victory.
This Is Not A Film (2012)
In this documentary (smuggled out of the country in a cake), Panahi, during his house arrest, awaits his ruling and verdict that determines how long he will be jailed for his confrontational movies and scripts. His anger is quiet and frustration restrained. When he is acting out a screenplay that got rejected, he says, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” and leaves. Panahi’s tragedy can be heard and felt.
After having been banned from travelling and making films in Iran, Jafar Panahi poses as a taxi driver to film life in Tehran, where disjointed accounts of different passengers formed a whole. It starts with a debate between two passengers on capital punishment and ends with a ransacker breaking into the taxi. The car is the only spatial reference Panahi provides, and within that small vehicle, we are offered his silent dissent and resistance as well as his unquenchable need to make movies.
3 Faces (2018)
The movie opens with a frightening recording of a young, budding actress ostensibly hanging herself. While doing so, she mentions a famous Iranian actress, Behnaz Jafari, who later visits a village investigating the case of the young woman. 3 Faces won the Best Screenplay at Cannes Film Festival, and rightly so. As a poem on despair and hopelessness is recited in the background, the film wrestles with some questions — Why are entertainers and artists often cast out? What is it about their professions that people consider “empty-headed”?