The Circle Jafar Panahi

The Circle Jafar Panahi
"The Circle" is the first Iranian film I've seen that deals with the condition of women in that country, and it probably wasn't even finished before it was banned from being screened. I usually find that these kinds of message driven, "socially concerned" films only end up inspiring indignation and self-righteousness when screened for North American audiences (entertainment value doesn't seem to matter to art-house crowds if they can leave feeling elevated and ennobled by the experience), but this one earned much more than my own begrudging respect – it's an oddly gripping film that succeeds as both a great drama and a cogent social critique.

It begins with the off-screen sounds of a baby being born, and when the grandmother of the child hears that it's a girl she protests, "but the ultrasound said it was going to be a boy!" She knows that the birth of a daughter will almost certainly signal an immediate divorce. This is sort of a thematic prelude to the main story that focuses (though not exclusively) on three women (Maedeh, Nargess, and Arezou) who, while on leave from prison, decide to make a risky bid for freedom. In the process of avoiding the ubiquitous presence of soldiers or policemen, they gradually get separated from each other and the story takes on a loose, episodic structure similar to Richard Linklater's "Slacker" (when one character is lost, there's another just around the corner to follow). The camera, never on a tripod, always on the move, carefully stalks around with them and watches as they inevitably get absorbed back into the pitiless judicial system. Maedeh gets arrested for trying to sell a gold chain for money to make a phone call. Nargess has to lie in order to buy a bus ticket (a woman can only travel alone if she's a student or accompanied by a man), but an ill-timed decision on her part leads her right to the brink of another trap.

There's no "victimised" mentality to the various Iranian women depicted in "The Circle" (although they, more than anyone, have a claim to that mantle). It's a bracing counterpoint to North American feminism and it reminded me of that Woody Allen line, "My family and I were never depressed - we were always too unhappy to be depressed." These women are too busy living by their wits and boldly sticking up for themselves to have the presence of mind for self-pity (even though she's on the lam, Arezou still picks a fight with a man who made a suggestive comment to her). There's a whole gamut of sociological detail in the film (it also deals with issues surrounding child-abandonment, prostitution, and abortion), but director Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon"), never lets the narrative get bogged-down or preachy. He forces us to take on the subjective perspective of the each character, so when they're unceremoniously wrenched out of the fabric of the narrative, we get a gut-level understanding of the perils of being a woman in Iran.