Jafar Panahi: An Independent Filmmaker

< The Mirror

Text: Jafar Panahi is an independent post-revolutionary director, one of whose films, (The White Balloon) has been released, while another (The Mirror) has remained unrealized in Iran, and a third (The Circle) has been banned. Pannahi is a graduate of the IRIB Television College where he made his first short films while on an internship at the Bandar Abbas Center (which is located along the Persian Gulf coast). The Children and Young Adults Department of IRIB's Channel 2 is not only where he works but also a forum where he chats with his friends and colleagues about the new cinema which they all follow. Panahi met Parviz Shahbazi (Traveler from the South and Whispers) and Farzad Jodat (D.o.P) at college and Kambozia Partovi (The Fish, The Adults' Game, Naneh Lala...) at the IRIB . This group has good reason for sharing views on filmmaking and cinema. Panahi outpaced his classmates in becoming famous as an independent filmmaker when he adamantly sought to serve as Kiarostami's first assistant in Through the Olive Trees. He surely knew that his landmark event would dramatically changes his future. Panahi's talent, college learning, and experiences as assistant to Kiarostami made him known to all ( viewers, critics, and film figures) as a stylish filmmakers rising to fame with his debut picture The White Balloon.

Panahi decorously blends the classic narrative style with modern dramatic structure, a technique which few filmmakers have successfully worked out during the transition from post-modernism to decon-structionism and during the peak of topical formalism in European- American cinema. Most filmmkers prefer to use the classic cinema's successful cliches to insure their films' commercial success or to shun all classic principles on the pretext of making artistic films and ultimately direct films that are devoid of economic returns or fail ro interest general viewing public. Novice filmmakers whose cinematic experience was shaped in Iranian fledgling post-revolutionary cinema with government funds prompted the common viewers to doubt the so-called artistic Iranian cinema or to look for films that followed classic principles.

Under such circumstances, The White Balloon and Kiyanoosh Ayyari's films- which somehow followed Kiarostami's style in The Report- created a new atmosphere for Iranian modernist filmmakers. As such, most young filmmakers' debut films are not commercial action films any more. They rather offer an artistic viewpoint and are familiar to the general viewing audience. The White Balloon's success in festivals at home and abroad and winning the Camera D'Or- the most prestigious prize the Iranian cinema had won until then prompted state producers to invest more on young talented filmmakers and also paved the way for younger directors to join the professional cinema, a path which had formerly been closed to them due to guild-related issues.

The Camera D'Or was, moreover, a seal of approval for Panahi's filmmaking technique. Many critics view him as a follower of Kiarostami's style. However, despite apparent similarities between Panahi's first film and Kiarostami's films, Panahi employs his own unique style that is rooted in his first two short films (The Friend and Final Exam). Through The White Balloon, The Mirror, and The Circle, Panahi proved that his style is intrinsically different from that of Kiarostami's cinema and has served as his assistant and though Kiarostami wrote the screenplay of his debut feature film (The White Balloon).

Just because Pahani uses non- professionals (as actors/ actresses), employs repetitions, and deals with children in his films, he cannot be considered to follow Kiarostami's style. Panahi's films rely on mise-en-scene and decoupage that take shape in accordance with classic cinema's visual aesthetics. The opening of The White Balloon is the best way to recap an entire film in just one sequence. And this introduction appears to be conventional and classic, an approach not used by Kiarostami. Camera movement, mise-en-scene, decoupage, and the appearance of actors/actresses inside the camera frame accord with classic cinema conventions which make the addressees aware of the film's cinematic emphases. Even though such emphases lie in the film's background, they are different from the type of emphasis which Kiarostami uses, say in And Life Goes on ... in which director helps and old woman take out a mattress from under the debris and use it. Here the viewers actually choose to see things inside the camera frame the way they want to. But Panahi does not give such full freedom to the addresses and embarks upon leaving effects that would attract the viewers in a modern way. Panahi's bent to make utilitarian use of mise-en scene to attract and influence the viewers through modern narration and characterization is best observable in The Mirror. The entire bus sequence and Mina's bewilderment are fully in accord with dialectic editing principles. The film's rising and falling rhythm has also been designed after a logical narrative structure. The major difference between Panahi's style and that of other new Iranian filmmakers lies in the theme of his latest film and his approach to Iran's modern-day social issues. Panahi's social look is so bold, candid, and real in his latest picture that it led to a two- year ban on the film which was not screened even at the Fajr Festival 2000.

Women's issues have always been controversial in the post- revolutionary cinema and served as "red lines" (borders or limits that should not be crossed). But The Circle is not just about Iranian women. It is rather a real and first-hand picture of devastated women and any patriarchal society in which women's rights are overlooked. How should such a subject be dramatized to avoid sentimentalism and melodrama? How should a film portraying the social and economic problems of women in Tehran's poor neighborhoods be made without using the classic cinema cliches to achieve the required effect? The answer lies in the form-content decorum in The Circle.

The nonpareil and exemplary coordination between The Circle's form and content, as well as its memorable characters, etch the film in the viewers' minds: Women and girls from Tehran who are human beings with human feelings and dreams and who strive to adapt to any situation to survive, just like the film's fluid form which readily adapts to the subject of each scene. The film's rhythm also helps the viewers' concentrate on each subject.

It is not just the way Panahi has become a director and the way he makes films that has made him an independent filmmaker. Rather the way he deals with officials and problems indicate his independence, as he does not rely on any power other than his personal capabilities and viewpoints. So long as Panahi feels bound to make films, no will power can outsmart his determination.

Such a characteristic has enabled Panahi to retain his independence amid Iran's whirlwind political tides and in the face of the Iranian cinema's economic equations. This is why Panahi has been established as an independent modern filmmaker. What Kiarostami said about Panahi should ring in our minds, ".... Panahi will never make wrong films".

The Wounded Heads (Yarali Bashar)

Pro: College of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)/Scr: J.Panahi/D.o.P: Farzad Jodat, Mehdi Memarian &J. Panahi/Ed: J.Panahi/Running Time:30',Color, 16mm., 1988

Synopsis: The Wounded Heads is a documentary on head slashing in Iranian Azerbaijan. The martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the third Shiite Imam, on Ashura is observed by people through different mourning ceremonies. People in Iran's northwest, as well as Iranian Turks, have the tradition of head slashing: they keep hitting their heads with long unsheathed knives until their blood gushes out. Even though such mourning rites have been banned in Iran for years, still many embark upon it in secret. The film, a documentary presentation of the said mourning ceremony, was shot secretly, and, for a long time, there was a ban on its release. The Wounded Heads is a documentary on head slashing in Iranian Azerbaijan. The martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the third Shiite Imam, on Ashura is observed by people through different mourning ceremonies. People in Iran's northwest, as well as Iranian Turks, have the tradition of head slashing: they keep hitting their heads with long unsheathed knives until their blood gushes out. Even though such mourning rites have been banned in Iran for years, still many embark upon it in secret. The film, a documentary presentation of the said mourning ceremony, was shot secretly, and, for a long time, there was a ban on its release.

The Friend(Doust)

Pro: Bandar Abbas Center of IRIB/Scr: Kambiz Dori&J. Panahi/D.o.P: Farzad Jodat/ Ed: J.Panahi/Mus: Seyed Mohammad Mir-Zamani/ Cast: Ali Azizollahi, Mehdi Shahabi, Taherh Karimzadeh/Running Time: 42', Color, 16mm., 1992

* The film views the world of youth with a friendly look, rather than from a high perch. The film's rhythm which is adequately suited to recounting a story for children was highly unconventional at the time of its release when filmmakers had a different view of children's cinema. Th film's story and characterization techniques were later amply used in TV productions. As with The Final Exam, The Friend was awarded four prizes at the National TV Festival.

The Final Exam (Akharin Emtehan)

Pro: Bandar Abbas Center of IRIB/Scr: Kambiz Dori & J. Panahi/D.o.P Farzad Jodat/Ed: J.Panahi/Mus: Seyed Mohammad Mir-Zamani/ Cast: Ali Azizollah, Mehdi Shahabi/ Running Time:35', Color, 16mm., 1992

*During the days of the huge gap between commercial and artistic children's cinemas, the approach taken in Panahi's short films, as well as feature films of Partovi and Ayyari (The Bull's Horn), become very popular. Of course as Pahani's short films were TV production, they were evaluated as good TV programs instead of box-office hits. The employing on non-actors and coordination between the photography and theme paramount features of The Final Exam. The Final Exam grabbed four prizes for the best film, screenplay, photography, and editing at the National TV Festival.

The Second Look( Negah-E Dovom)

Pro: Production Dept.of Ministry of Culture/D.o.P Farzad Jobat/ Ed: J.Panahi/Sound:M-A Abiri/Running Time:30', Color, 16mm.,1993

Synopsis: A documentary account of what went on behind the scenes of Kambozia Partovi's Golnar by focusing on the sentimental relationship between the puppet maker and his puppets.

- Golnar's screenplay is and adaptation of a classic Russian legend which I first read in a book called " Masha and the Bear" when I was eight or nine. I was so moved by it that I still consider it as one of the most beautiful legends suitable for children.(Jafar Panahi, 1989)

The White Balloon (Badkonak-e Sefid)

Pro: IRIB's Channel Two/Scr:Abbas Kiarostami(Based on a draft by J.Panahi and Parviz Shahbazi)/D.o.P Farzad Jodat/ Ed.&Art Direction: J.Panahi/Mus:Farshid Rahimian/Cast: Fereshteh Sadr Orafai,Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kafili, Ana Borkowska/ Running Time: 90', Color, 35mm., 1995

Synopsis: A short time before the start of the new year, Razieh goes out to buy a gold fish. She loses her money, and in her search for the lost money, she meets who can not join her the New Year's Festivities.: A short time before the start of the new year, Razieh goes out to buy a gold fish. She loses her money, and in her search for the lost money, she meets who can not join her the New Year's Festivities.

- The White Balloon- initially titled Happy New Year-was Jafar Pahani's debut feature film. Before directing The White Balloon, Panahi was assistant director to Kambozia Partovi in The Fish (1989) and Abbas Kiarostami in Through the Olive Trees (1994). Panahi, a graduate of film directing from the IRIB College, has a track record of short film such as The Friend, Final Exam, Second Look (Behind the Scene of Kambozia Partovi's Golnar), and The Wounded Heads. On how the story of The White Balloon evolved, Panahi said, " My friend Parviz Shahbazi once told me of the film's proposed story, and I thought it was workable. We then jointly worked on the proposed story and put it down on eight pages. I presented it to the Children and Youth Department of the IRIB's Channel 1, but as usual it was not approved."

The White Balloon was originally scheduled to be a short 16mm film, but when Abbas Kiarostami got to know the proposed story, he decided to write a screenplay for a feature film based on it. Kiarostami noted, "In one of the trips with Jafar Panahi to Iran's northern parts on shoot Through the Olive Trees, he talked very briefly about the story he had in mind. I was not supposed to write the screenplay at first. But I was drawn to its subject. As such, I wrote the screenplay and made some changes (to the original story). The screenplay dealt with the Iranian New Year and people who for whatever reason cannot celebrate the setting in of the New Year with traditional ceremonies. The screenplay focused on marginal characters who gradually replaced the major characters and actually had the say". Panahi believes that acquaintance with Kiarostami was the luck of his life. He holds that without Kiarostami's help, the film would have never been produced. Before The White Balloon, Panahi presented various proposed stories to IRIB's Channel 1 but none of them were ever approved, not even The White Balloon's initial proposed story which was finally approved by IRIB's Channel 2. Then Kiarostami wrote the screenplay. Finally the film's shooting began on April 6, 1994 in Kashan (a traditional city close to Tehran). Even though the film is set in Tehran, it has been shot in Kashan, in places such as "Gozar Haji", which still have the traditional architecture that Tehran once had (to give a feeling of Tehran before its modernization). Panahi scoured the country to choose the actors and actresses. He brought Mohammad Shahani from Neishabur's Marefat Teachers' College to Tehran to impersonate the soldier with Neishaburi accent. He picked Asgar Barzegar, a fish seller in Rasht market, to play the role of the fish seller. Panahi also needed an Armenian lady to play in the film. Several ads were placed in Alik newspaper. But those who showed up failed to impress the director. Finally Polish Anna Borkovska rushed to the director's help. Panahi said, "I like Khosro Sinai's Lost Elegy and I always recalled scenes of the film, especially those in which Anna Borkovska appeared. I was looking for a chance to work with her. When I was unable to find an Armenian actress, I immediately asked her to play in the film. Working with her was extremely pleasant".

Panahi decided to work with non-professionals. He believes that his collaboration with Kambozia Partovi in The Fish was very helpful in working with children in The White Balloon. He chose Aida Mohammadkhani to play the role of Razieh, the young girl in The White Balloon, and very soon won her trust. He was able to find the boy he wanted to play the role of Ali. But when he went to talk to him a few days later, he realized that the boy had traveled to Austria! Panahi tried very hard to find another boy the role. After testing some 6,000 boys in different schools, Panahi finally found another Ali. Panahi said, "It is always hard to make children play. But the important consideration is to make the right choice. The right choice makes everything simple." Photography went well until April 21 when Aida Mohammadkhani, the film's leading actress, had an ccident: A pot of hot water fell on her feet. For this reason, photography was halted for twenty days. The final shooting session was on June 4. The film was made with a small budget, and Pahani maintained that his colleagues helped very much in the film's production. The White Balloon incorporates a range of Iranian accents: Turkish, Shomali (northern Iran), Neishaburi, etc. Even Ms.Anna Borkovska has her own peculiar accent. As with most of his crew, Panahi made a debut with this feature film. Commenting on Panahi, Kiarostami says, "I saw several of his short films. I think he is extremely gifted and can be a promising figure for our cinema's future." (Hoshang Golmakani, 1995)

- The film's narrative structure practically takes shape with the contradiction between the dramatic form and the strategy to stray from the main story. A conflict ensues between proceeding with the main story and straying from it. This is perhaps why the common viewers leave the theater neither fully satisfied nor disappointed, since what they see fulfills a part of their expectations (which are formed on the basis of the film's dramatic structure) but is not completely in tune with what they expected. However if the viewers' expectations accord with the straying, they will then find the narrative structure normal and logical. The conflict between the main story and straying from it finally ends in favor of the latter. The film's ending is noteworthy: The camera which followed the girl and her brother everywhere finally leaves them with the bank notes to zoom in on the secondary story (of the balloon seller). This makes the audiences realize that the entire story which the film's dramatic structure presented so far and which prompted the viewers to identify with is nothing as compared with the loneliness of this forlorn stranger whom the camera follows for only a few seconds. The final emphasis of the film is equally moving: What does it matter how the girl and her brother get the fish and return home and what awaits them at home? (Majid Eslami, 1995)

- The White Balloon is considered a "modern" film which avoids classic and academic conventions in both its screenplay and direction and which follows the linear narrative structure, even though its story can be dramatically branched out. The conventional classic cinema rise and fall has the least importance(in the film), while "moments" gain added momentum. A "real" life (story) is the fountainhead of all these moments in the "The White Balloon". (Mostafa Jalali Fakhr, 1995)

*Aida's glow and charm, screenplay with Kiarostami's seal, and classic from juxtaposed with modern editing create a memorable combination in the history of Iranian cinema: The White Balloon. Panahi's The White Balloon brought him international fame at first and then domestic acclaim. The film was selected (as a top work) at the Isfahan Festival of films for Children&Young Adults and Tehran's Fajr International Film Festival. It was the first Iranian picture to grab a top prize at Cannes. The White Balloon was produced by the IRIB (Iranian TV) who has financed few non-commercial, artistic, and credible films. Each year the IRIB broadcasts this film when the Iranian New Year sets in, and again Aida, Aida.....

The Mirror(Ayneh)

Pro: Film Rouze (V.Nik-Khah Azad&J.Panahi)/D.o.P: Farzad Jodat/Ed: J.Panahi/Cast: Mina Mohammadkhani, Nasser Omoumi/Running Time: 80', Color, 35mm., 1997

synopsis: While a football match between the Iranian and Korean teams is being aired live on T.V., a small girl named Baharan, whose mother has not gone to fetch her from school, the little girl wanders in the streets.

- The Mirror marked the end of a phase in Jafar Panahi's career, a brief phase which culminated in The White Balloon and The Mirror. Among Iran's new wave filmmakers, Pahani is the second director after Abbas Kiarostami to dispense with films about children. Even though The Mirror

did not bring Panahi the same distinction which The White Balloon did, it, too, has been widely acclaimed abroad. (Hoshang Golmakani, 1999)

*Apparently Jafar Panahi has had a hard filmmaking career before directing The Mirror. Panahi's success and premature fame with The White Balloon raised the level of expectations from this director. He himself was even hesitant to choose screenplays. He initially intended to direct Kiarostami's screenplay Willow and the Wind which was later directed by Mohammad-Ali Talebi. But, as he puts it, he suddenly came across the subject of The Mirror, yet he still had his doubts as to how to proceed with the film. But it is common knowledge that a work of art generates itself, even against the wishes of its creator. This is why midway through the shooting, changes were effected in The Mirror.

This time, Aida's sister rushed to Panahi's aid. The Mirror reflects Panahi's concerns over filmmaking experiences; experiences which bore fruit in The Circle. Though The Mirror bagged the Locarno's top prize and as such prompted the Iranians view it as the second film of this successful young director, it has not as yet been released at home due to Panahi's objection to the absence of copyright in Iran. This is a kind of self-imposed punishment.

The Circle (Dayereh)

Pro.: J.Panahi/Scr.: Kambozia Partovi(based on a draft by J. Panahi)/Ed:J.Panahi/D.o.P. Bahram Badakhshani/Art Dir: Iraj Raminfar/Sound Rec.: Sasan Bagherpour&Ahmad Ardalan/SoundMix:/ Mehdi Dezbodi/Make Up: M.Malaki/Cast: Freshteh Sadr Orafai, Fatemeh Naghavi, Nargess Mamizadeh Razighi, Maryam Parvin Almani, Elham Saboktakin/ Runing Time: 90 min, Col, 35mm, 2000

Synopsis: Two women, Zinat and Afsaneh have escaped from jail. Zinat comes from a small town and needs money to return. They seek out their friend, Pari, who has also escaped from jail, but cannot find her. Afsaneh obtains money and leaves Zinat at the bus terminal. After some difficulty with the ticket agent, Zinat purchases her ticket and a white shirt for her fianc®¶, but she in unable to board the bus because the police are checking the passengers' papers. and therefore, there is not way to get on the bus. Afsaneh finds Pari's address, but, when Pari's father turns her away, she is left to wander the streets alone. Her father and brothers throw Pari, who is pregnant and has escaped from jail to get on abortion, out of the family home. She encounters another former inmate at the theaters, who streets her to a friend who works at a hospital, but Pari is unable to convince the hospital worker to help her. While searching for a cheap hotel, she sees a woman abandon her young daughter-she is a widow and her boy-friend won't accept her with a daughter. After her boyfriend rejects her anyway, the mother is picked up by a plainclothes policeman who suspects her of prostitution. At a roadblock he releases her and gets out of his cat to interrogate a young prostitute, who is taken to a temporary jail, where the camera circles to reveal Zinat, Afsaneh and Pari sitting in silence among the other women.

- The Circle is an artistic landmark in Iran's new political-social era. Utilizing a completely modern form, Panahi divulges the unspoken pain and chagrin of an Iranian woman who,ofcourse, does not epitomize all women in the country. The Circle offers a picture of several low class Iranian women who face aberration casued by (social) incompatibilities. Panahi does not present any slogans in the film. Nor does he play with the viewing audience's feelings or act as the all-knowing(conscience) and the judge. Panahi does not use his personal views to idealize the incompatible realities either. Nor does he merege with the characters and rob the addressees of their power to judge. He merely offers a visual and pictorial report. The Circle is a very prominet Iranian film for its rhythm, atmosphere, innovative use of setting, perfumances, and technical/visual effects. It would be a pity if this film is not screened and if Iranian viewers are deprived of watching it. (Behzad Eshghi-2000)

*No Iranian film has faced such fanfare and huge volume of articles prior to its production and during its shooting, screening, and ban. But all this is worth the effort to remove the misunderstandings in a drive to lift the ban on The Circle and secure its release, as the film is a milestone in Iranian cinema. While working on The Circle, Panahi realized the problem with The Mirror's screenplay and as such asked for the assistance of Kambozia Partovi, screenplay writer and director who shares his tastes and to whom he several as assistant during the production of The Fish (1989). Partovi submitted a screenplay which was the product of Panahi's yearlong search and research in Tehran and especially on nightlife in this city. The Circle rediscovers Tehran,women, and women's nightlife in Tehran.

From www.netiran.com

< The Mirror