INTERVIEW: The Dark Balloon; Jafar Panahi's Vicious "Circle"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 04.12.01) — Just days after Jafar Panahi‘s “The Circle” won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival — the first time an Iranian film had ever won the award — his native country celebrated its 100-year anniversary of cinema. From the recent slates of U.S. art-house distributors to Abbas Kiarostami retros, and the Mohsen Makhmalbaf filmmaking family, awareness for Iranian film has never been higher. They truly do have something to celebrate.
Panahi’s own “The White Balloon,” along with Majid Majidi‘s “Children of Heaven” — two films part of that now familiar genre of Iranian kid flicks — marked a groundbreaking moment in the late 1990s with their ability to cross over to the American market. Now another issue seems to be dominating the Iranian zeitgeist: the role of women. Begun by last year’s “Two Women,” and followed up with this year’s “The Day I Became a Woman,” and now Panahi’s “The Circle,” the veiled and subjugated women of Iranian society has proven a new thematic and universal thread.
A masterpiece of film structure and frame, “The Circle” continues Iran’s cinematic triumphs with a precisely crafted, powerful drama. Through its collection of spiraling women’s stories of social struggle, Panahi’s work slowly builds to a cul-de-sac of devastation and hopelessness. There may be a kid lost in the streets in “The Circle,” but this time, we follow the mother who abandoned her child, down the street, and into the trap of another man.
At the New York Film Festival, indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Panahi about making films for an audience, the multiple layers of his work, long takes, and the current Iranian wave.
indieWIRE: How important is it for this film to travel to audiences in the U.S.?
Jafar Panahi: I think this film and the other films I’ve made are humanistic films and are not necessarily society-specific. They are not films that should be limited to one place. Of course, everyone will have their own interpretation of the film. But I’m never concerned with the idea of an audience when I’m making a film. In general, it’s not important to me what the press says, the reaction at film festivals, or even the sales of the film. My biggest critic is myself, and I’m always trying to please myself. In my cinema, the critic runs after the director, not the other way around, which I feel is probably the case in Hollywood. In Hollywood, of course, there’s a lot of attention paid to how certain scenes influence the sales of the film. In this kind of cinema, you’re challenging the expectations of an audience.
iW: If you make films without the audience in mind, why do you make films, at all?
Panahi: It’s not that I’m not interested in the audience, as a whole, but a particular audience, not the Hollywood audience. Of course, audiences are the economic basis of cinema; they create the possibility of making films. But the difference in terms of approach is that I’m constantly thinking of ways that I can come up with a new way to interact with the audience, rather than trying to stay with the audience’s desires.
iW: Let’s discuss some of the ways you interact with your audience in “The Circle”? What are some ways you think you play with expectations?
Panahi: Again compared with Hollywood, the Hollywood style attempts to create films that form a homogeneous audience. This film has different kinds of layers; the goal of the film is to appeal to people on their own level, so they will leave the film with different kinds of reactions. I think this is more respectful of audiences; it presumes them to be knowledgeable no matter how smart they are. For example, in this film, you never find out why those women ended up in jail. There are hints and symbols that give different kinds of people different kinds of readings of the situation. And everyone you ask, has a whole story that explains the parts that are unexplained. And so, the most importance thing for this cinema is the way that audiences think and not how they would dig into their pocket.
iW: Your film appears simple, but is clearly, very intricately structured. Can you talk about how you structured it?
Panahi: The most important thing is to know what you’re trying to say, and after the content is understood, then we can look for a suitable form for it. And then the challenge is to bring these two together in such a way that the form becomes the content and the content becomes the form. Maybe the most common way to tell this story would have been to begin at a prison, with the women coming out of prison and telling their story of leaving prison. But rather than have this introduction, I think it’s more suitable to put out a simple question in the first scene: Why is it a problem that these people are having a girl? And then there’s 86 minutes of explanation. And then, coming from that basic question, I just looked at the various particulars and tried to put them in a form that was appropriate. And so, as you noted, the film has a special appearance, but every part of it was very thought through. What was difficult was trying to put these things altogether that wouldn’t seem as if they particulars, but as a whole.
iW: As for the circle structure, I’m sure many people have mentioned other films with circular structures, like “Le Ronde,” for example. Did you have any of these films in mind when you made the film?
Panahi: A Turkish person told me there was a Turkish film like that, a Spanish person told me there was a Spanish film like that, but I wasn’t really thinking of any specific films. But even in literature, you can find examples of this kind of structure. Even Godfrey Cheshire mentioned a Persian story like this, so I’m not aware of these, but it could be something I saw at a movie theater when I was a kid and had an affect on me, so it’s hard to say what it’s from. It’s just something that was appropriate to the story.
iW: Your use of long takes seemed to serve a specific purpose here.
Panahi: In general, the idea was the long takes facilitated the circular theme that we were trying to put in the film at all points. In the hospital scene, when the mother goes down the staircase, it’s circular. In an other indoor scene, there are lots of circular spaces and these facilitated long takes. Or the last shot, which is a long take around the prison cell, it’s rapping it up and we used the long take to do it.
iW: There was one shot which particularly sold me on the film. I don’t think it’s the most incredible one, but it really hit home for me in terms of the film’s craft. A woman leaves her baby behind, and she’s walking down the street and then gets into a car with a man. How was that shot accomplished? I think it was all one take?
Panahi: Before that scene, the camera is following an idealistic woman; the camera was freer, it was farther away, and there was a more open perspective on the world. As we meet the next woman, we realize her circle is tighter, and the camera comes in closer and this was all part of this design to bring us into this woman. When she gets in the car, it’s not important for us or for her to know who the person is or what the car is. So it’s not important to the camera. When that individual finally takes on importance for her, that’s when we begin to notice who he is. So it’s really her story that directed that scene.
iW: How many times did it take to get it right?
Panahi: It took four nights of shooting.
iW: How long was the entire shoot?
Panahi: 53 days of production, 35 were in shooting, and the rest was preparing and travel.
iW: For me, the film was more intellectually satisfying than emotionally. Everyone has a different reaction, as you said, but what do you think of this reaction?
Panahi: That’s maybe because I was very conscious of not trying to play with people’s emotions; we were not trying to create tear-jerking scenes or moments that were just for an emotional reason. So it engages people’s intellectual side, certainly. But this is with assistance from the emotional aspect and a combination of the two, gives them a certain understanding.
iW: Is the film at all a reaction against the sort of mainstream melodrama found in Iranian film?
Panahi: I was conscious of not making a melodrama and trying not to base the film on that tradition, but I don’t think I was trying to do something in opposition to Iranian melodramatic films.
iW: I think this year in the U.S., we will see more Iranian films than ever before; do you feel part of some movement?
Panahi: When I made “The White Balloon,” there was no great audience for Iranian films here. And there are a number of films, including “The White Balloon,” which had some impact on that. I feel that there’s an effort to extend the communication lines between Iran and other places and so I feel a part of that movement. Of course, there are lots of things that play into this. For example, in Iran, the reason that my film was given permission to be made was because of intense pressure on the part of the press on the government. I feel that there’s a connection between that and the way in which the press acts in all kinds of countries, in giving voice to films that might not have budgets for promotion, or that business backing.