by Nicholas Kouhi
"A 20-year ban on filmmaking issued by the government in 2010 hasn't stopped Panahi asking the question: can art be produced when an artist is in the throes of emotional turmoil?"
As artists, how do we portray the world within the four walls of our room? The internationally revered Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has posed varying iterations of this question with a quartet of formally daring, often painfully personal films. All of these have been clandestinely made under a 20-year ban on filmmaking issued by the government in 2010. Two of them, the documentary This Is Not a Film (2011) and drama Closed Curtain (2013), most vividly confront the challenge of creating in imposed solitude, providing no easy answers in their attempts to exorcize the psychic trauma of confinement and repression.
This is Not a Film serves as a form of direct address for Panahi, the flint meant to spark his rapidly dwindling creativity as he faces mounting pressure from his impending trial. On the floor of his apartment, he lays out for us in exacting detail, the set of a film he intended to make before his arrest in March 2010. Closed Curtain is in many ways a repurposing of that intended film, a claustrophobic chamber drama about a screenwriter (Kambuzia Partovi) hiding out with a bright-eyed stray dog he names “Boy”. The specter of persecution is echoed in the fact that dogs are deemed najes, or unclean, under fundamentalist Islamist doctrine (dog-walking was even banned in Tehran in 2019). Yet the film complicates its allegorical trappings by having Panahi himself enter the story halfway through.
Far from solipsistic navel-gazing, it is this oscillation between a constructed narrative and an impressionistic confessional which informs the poignancy of these films. Within the limited scope of their settings, necessitated by governmental restrictions, Panahi poses a complex question in simple terms: can art be produced when an artist is in the throes of emotional turmoil, clouded by despair and rage?
Indeed, in nations whose systemic inequities have been laid bare by the pandemic, that mixture of emotions has informed the pervading feeling of powerlessness so many of us share as we sit in our rooms, watching the numbers of infected or dead continue to rise. Iran was one of the countries most badly impacted by COVID-19 in the early months of the year. This was in part due to the government urging medical professionals and the media not to report on cases before the February 21st Legislative Elections, in the belief that a lower turnout would support political figures they deemed ‘counterrevolutionaries’.
However, the government’s incarceration practices still threatened perceived dissidents of the state, including Panahi’s peer Mohammoud Rasoulof, whose There Is No Evil (2020) nabbed him the top prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and, subsequently, a one-year prison sentence in March (one which Rasoulof refused to comply with for his own health and safety).
In the preceding months, I’ve found a gentle strain of catharsis in Panahi’s films, primarily because of their directness and raw vulnerability. As portraits of freedom, confinement, and malaise, they are universally resonant whilst never losing sight of their precise socio-political setting. Panahi’s work forces him to see the world anew if he, as an artist and as an individual, is to survive. For both viewers and creators, there’s a lot we can gain from these films in this uneasy moment. With generous swathes of empathy, they reinforce the oft-forgotten truth that we are all lonely in isolation, but we are not alone.
Nicholas Kouhi is a critic and programmer. He has recently finished his studies at the National Film and Television School, where he programmed a series of virtual screenings of several Hong Kong films. He has written for Sight and Sound Magazine as well as Art Touches Art. His collection of writings can be found on his website, www.kouhifilms.com