Chalk up another one for George Dubya. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Immigration Department refused to allow acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, director of both the Oscar-nominated The White Balloon and the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner The Circle, to change planes in New York on his way from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires. It turns out that no one had informed him, despite his repeated queries, that he would need a transit visa in order to switch aircraft on U.S. soil (if this sounds like something out of Casablanca, there's a reason). When immigration officials attempted to fingerprint and photograph Panahi, the director refused, and, after 13 tense hours shackled hand and foot in detention, he found himself on a plane back to Hong Kong. Outraged at his treatment in the good old land of the free, he canceled an upcoming trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles for the opening of The Circle.
Certainly a case can be made for the State Department policy that requires citizens of certain non-American-loving nations to be fingerprinted when entering the U.S. But Panahi had been to this country twice before -- including a visit in March when he was being honored in Washington, D.C.-- and both times he had been granted a dispensation from what he considered a humiliating practice.
The irony of the whole embarrassing affair is that The Circle, which draws attention to contemporary Iran's retrograde treatment of women, has been banned in its own country. No one there can see it because the powers that be don't approve of the film's politics.
The Circle is an extraordinary film from a born filmmaker, and it's a pity Panahi won't be here in person to accept all the applause and accolades his powerhouse of a film so richly deserves. Like The Day I Became a Woman, which opened recently, the film depicts the plight of women in a fundamentalist Islamic society. Unlike the earlier film, however, it addresses its subject head-on rather than metaphorically or symbolically.
The movie opens to the sounds of a woman in labor. In the adjoining waiting room, the grandmother learns that her daughter has just given birth to a baby girl, although the ultrasound had indicated the child would be a boy. Unable to face her daughter's in-laws, who surely will demand a divorce, the distraught grandmother flees the hospital.
Outside, she passes a group of young women at a phone booth. The camera shifts its attention to them as, one by one, their stories unfold. It is a style and structure reminiscent of Max Ophuls' La Ronde, in which the narrative passes from one character to the next like a baton in a relay race. We meet the guileless young woman who longs to return to her village; the unmarried woman desperate for an abortion; a well-married woman who has abandoned family and friends, lest her husband learn of her past; a woman who feels that the only way to provide for her child is to desert her, in the hopes she will be adopted by someone better able to provide for her.
In the end, of course, the stories are essentially the same, for no matter what the specific predicament, all the women are trapped in the same stifling environment. They cannot leave home unless draped in a chador; they are not permitted to smoke in public; they need identification papers or police authorization to be out in public alone; and if they are traveling in a car with any unrelated man, they are subject to arrest -- on the theory that the woman must be a prostitute.
As if the individual stories weren't strong enough on their own, The Circle has a documentary quality that adds to its immense power. Shot predominantly outdoors with a hand-held camera, it consists of wide angles and lengthy takes. The actors, all but two of whom are nonprofessionals, are sensational. Fereshteh Sadr Orafai, who played the mother in The White Balloon and here plays Pari, and first-time actress Maryiam Parvin Almani as Arezou are particularly memorable, registering hope, despair and desperation with absolute conviction and naturalism.
It's hard to believe this is only Panahi's third feature as a director (he was an assistant director on Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees), for he constructs his films like a master at the height of his career. This is particularly true of The Circle, which carries an emotional and artistic weight beyond even his first two features'. Like so many Iranian films, The White Balloon and The Mirror relied on child protagonists, a decision that served to placate the government but also softened the films' messages. The Circle is a bold move. Leaving allegory behind, Panahi focuses on adults -- which, of course, is precisely the reason the film has been banned in Iran.