Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)

The Circle may be the first prison escape movie to feature people who are all already out of jail. Its shifting narrative, which routinely hands off the baton to a new character and a new situation, revolves around women, most of whom have been to prison for something. What any of them did is never clear, and as we see throughout the movie, they might not know either as so many cops regularly detain someone without explanation. As such, while "The Circle" certainly refers to the circumnavigating arc the overall story takes, it also suggests a vague boundary that its characters cannot cross, a set of rules that constrains half of Iran's population solely on the basis of gender.

Unlike other Panahi films, The Circle does not show the defiance of the Iranian people to the authorities that still exercise total control over them. People stopped by cops in Crimson Gold demanded to know the reason for this harassment, and Offside shows a clear confrontation of insane theocratic law. Here, the director demonstrates the way Iranians are linked yet separated by the difficulties of harsh autocratic life, every character coming into contact with the other but isolated by the direction and the constant splitting up for safety's sake.

In each of the film's segments, Panahi's camera finds one character and sticks with her, never drifting from her side even when companions walk away. After a brief opening in a hospital, Panahi readjusts to focus on three women fresh out of prison and looking to make their way home. One of them, Maedah, is almost immediately arrested for trying to pawn a gold chain to raise bus money, and Panahi's camera hides with the other two, Nargess and Arezou, as they duck behind cars and watch this outrage unfold. Even when "free," they can easily find themselves back in jail for nothing. Panahi roots his camera on Nargess as this vignette continues, POV shots looking after Arezou as she calls in old favors to raise money and reverse shots revealing a nervous, vulnerable Nargess anticipating a cop pulling her aside at any moment. It hangs an overwhelming cloud of fear over the film, one that only grows as Panahi progresses with increasingly desperate characters.

It is accurate but misleading to say that The Circle is about state oppression of women in Iran. Rather, it is about the way such oppressions dictate social life and how women have learned to live under this oppressive regime without ever getting used to it. Nargess, split up from Arezou, attempts to buy a bus ticket to get home but has no ID as it's been taken from her. Without something to prove she's a student, she cannot ride alone without a man. Nargess finally convinces the guy at the counter to give her a ticket, but when she gets to the bus, she sees it being searched by police and flees, afraid of being sent to jail again. Nargess' friend, Pari, escaped from jail in the hopes of securing an abortion, and Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy wears a look of crippling terror on her face as she tries to broach the subject with those who might help her, as if expecting even her woman friends to stone her. She knows what a pariah she is, but she still can't resign herself to her fate. The defiance of later Panahi films may not be here, but that unwillingness to fully give in can be seen even in the fearful ducking and hiding the characters do as they ultimately even give the camera the slip to avoid attention.

Yet Panahi finds moments of humor in this noxious cloud of oppression. He even begins the film playing around a bit with his anchored direction: opening on a black screen as we hear the escalating moans and screams of a woman in childbirth, Panahi suggests that the first perspective might be that of the baby she delivers, especially as the screen turns to blinding white when we hear the infant's first cries. But then we see the image coalesce into a static view of a door that is clearly not the child's POV, especially as the baby is in the room beyond. Panahi also incorporates circular movement into his camerawork, traversing spiral staircases and, in the memorable scene where Pari comes to Elham for help, moves around the room as Elham keeps nervously darting out of her friend's reach as if afraid of being seen in contact with her.

But that humor is flecked with sadness, and the sheer number of ways Iranian society is aligned against women leads one past disgust straight to despair. And the government isn't the only force at play here; in that childbirth opening, we see the mother of the woman who just gave birth asking the nurse about the child's sex. When the nurse happily says it's a girl, the old woman immediately frets that ultrasounds said the child would be a boy, and the nurse's cheeriness fades as the woman worries that her daughter's in-laws will demand a divorce. Even socially, these people cannot win, and it cannot be coincidence that the door separating the maternity ward from the waiting room has a sliding metal plate over a window as if a jail cell door.

By the time the film enters its final stretch, the problems facing whomever is dominating attention has ballooned to reveal the fullest depths of the horrors facing women and the blatant hypocrisy of the system. A mother abandons her daughter on the streets in the vague hope that she'll be adopted by a family who can care for her. The woman sobs uncontrollably as she defends herself to an outraged Pari, and there's a horrible logic to her actions that show how much she really does care about her daughter. A prostitute gets arrested while her john gets let go because he's a man. In a way, this film is even more hopeless than Crimson Gold, a film that begins with the protagonist's suicide before flashing back. There is seemingly no safe haven for these characters, no way they can't be arrested or harangued for something. For me, the most telling moment came near the end as the prostitute is taken to jail and rides in a van along with some arrested men. The men begin singing over the protests and warnings of the police, and the prostitute even lights a cigarette after being chastised once. The only moment of expression and freedom in this entire movie takes place as characters ride to jail.

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