Gold Against the Soul: Jafar Panahi talks about Iranian cinema, Middle East politics and his latest film "Crimson Gold"
by Nick Dawson
Iranian cinema is renowned for its gravity and bleakness of vision, and Jafar Panahi's latest film is no exception. The follow-up to "The Circle," his stunning portrait of women's plight in Tehran, "Crimson Gold" deals with the plight of men dragged down into poverty and forced into petty crime and low-pay jobs. And yet despite the darkness of its vision and the heart-rending tragedy at the film's center, there is nevertheless an underlying optimism most apparent in the few moments of dark humor. When meeting Panahi, a smartly turned out 40-year-old, it is clear that the quiet dignity and dry humor of his films stem directly from his own personality and world view.
Before interviewing him at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I was told by the film's distributor that Panahi had personally smuggled "Crimson Gold" out of Iran to show it at the festival. After he had smuggled it to Cannes where it premiered, it won the festival's Un Certain Regard Jury Award, after which Panahi was told by the Iranian Ministry of Guidance that he could never show the film again. However, as we spoke in the plush surroundings of a hotel lobby, he seemed completely relaxed and detached as he spoke with quiet intelligence about matters back home. "He looks very serious, but he's a very funny guy, you know," said his interpreter to me. Wellspring opens "Crimson Gold" on Friday.
indieWIRE: How did you get the idea for "Crimson Gold"?
Jafar Panahi: It's a story based on a real life news event. One day I was in the car with [Abbas] Kiarostami caught in a traffic jam. As we were talking, Kiarostami asked me whether I had read about this guy who was in a robbery that went wrong who killed himself to save face. We were going to Kiarostami's gallery, but by the time we got there, I was not in the mood to be there, so I came out and walked around in the streets smoking cigarettes and waiting for him. After an hour I went in, and said to Kiarostami, "I like this story. I think I want to do a film about it." Abbas said, "In that case, I will do the script for you."
iW: How closely is the film based on the news story?
Panahi: It's the real event that inspires you and then makes your imagination work. And then the imagination feeds back on the reality, and the reality on the imagination, and its becomes like a circle that it builds up, and it becomes nearer and nearer to the reality each time.
iW: Was it a conscious decision to move your focus from children in "The White Balloon" and women in "The Circle" now to men in "Crimson Gold"?
Panahi: In some ways "The Circle" has the kids from "The White Balloon" when they have grown up and become those women. With "Crimson Gold," I'm looking at a more adult population, as I cannot see any more through the eyes of as child like in my first film, "The White Balloon." Evidently, it's more severe and there's more violence and it's tougher. I hope that each work is different from the other one, so the subject matter will change every time and the characters will be different. But in all of them, it's the underprivileged population that I'm considering.
iW: Despite distributors wanting to show them, all of your three films have been banned in Iran. How does this make you feel?
Panahi: Evidently when you make a film, you primarily want to show it in your own country, where you made the film, but you should not be afraid of the people who try to stop or ban your film, because you start to censor yourself, and then it's another film. Sometimes, self censorship is worse than actual censorship, so when I make a film I don't think about what is allowed and not allowed. I don't care where it's going to be shown, whether it's going to be shown, whether it's inside or outside of Iran, or how it's going to be perceived, I just do the film that I want to do. The important thing is to do the film that you want to do. It's not what you want to say that's important, but the way that you say it or the discourse that comes out if it. I think what is interesting in Iranian cinema is this new language, a new vision, and a new way of expressing something.
iW: Would you say you are a political or socially orientated filmmaker?
Panahi: I make all my films about social issues, about human individuals who have a problem to sort out, so my films are not stylistic or aesthetic, it's about social issues. However, I don't consider myself a political director or a filmmaker with a political interest -- I'm even against films which are simply on political issues. If a film has a political agenda, it's like a party film -- it means the director is saying "This is right, and this is wrong." I talk about social issues, and evidently underneath of those are political issues, and usually all social problems are a result of something that is wrong in the political system. We don't say a thing or wrong or right, we just try and show the reality, what is really happening.
iW: How difficult is it to be a film director in Iran?
Panahi: In Iran they make something like 60 or 70 films a year, which is quite a lot. Many countries can't afford to make that many. But once you're inside the system of the country, you always find ways of getting through the difficulties. You find your own language to get away with it. In some countries, budget is the most important issue, but in Iran that is not the case, and there are always ways of finding the budget, or doing it more modestly. Evidently, we have a lot of censorship and regulations and restrictions but also we manage to find a way going around those problems and finding a way to express ourselves despite those restrictions. I think any film talking about social issues will have problems in their countries wherever they are. We have to cross over the red lines and say what we want to say.
iW: Is there a feeling of community among Iranian filmmakers?
Panahi: Kiarostami and I are professional friends, and a bit like family with the same vision and intentions in filmmaking. With other directors, we'll meet up when we're involved in a common project, or we'll go to each others' film screenings. We don't decide intentionally that this is the line we're going to take, or this is the movement we're going to create. We all do things independently of each other, and sometimes we don't even see each other once a year. We took a difficult road, and we persisted. It could have gone downhill, but the movement kept it on, and the tension is still there.
iW: How do you feel about the current situation in Iran?
Panahi: There are lots of problems, problems between the people and the authorities that can't be sorted out harmoniously. At some stage or another this tension and these problems are going to explode, and there will need to be answers given to the public. In reality, because of the attention on the war, the conditions are maybe even worse than they were before and the restrictions are even tighter than before. The war was an excuse for the government to exploit this fear of the "other," the fear of foreigners and the West that was already slightly there, and to exploit this fear to make the situation even more controlled. Iran influenced a lot of its neighboring countries in the region.
iW: What was the response in your country to the recent Gulf War?
Panahi: The Iranian public was never very optimistic about what was happening, almost on a daily basis, as a result of the politics of the West in the area. It's true that Saddam attacked our country and for eight years we were at war with each other, but nobody in Iran thought that American intervention and getting rid of Saddam would sort out any problems. If democracy is going to be there, it has to come from the people themselves and from the root of the country. If the West stays there longer, it will have the opposite effect, and create very anti-Western and anti-democratic trends. They were saying that Bin Laden will never be found, that Saddam will never be found, and that they are there just there to frighten people as monsters, are being used as warning signals to keep the people under control. In Iran we were pleased that Saddam was going, but maybe just as sad that the Americans were coming.
iW: Why do feel Iranian cinema is so highly respected and popular among arthouse audiences?
Panahi: Maybe one of the good things about Iranian cinema is that we don't label people as either good or bad. That's why we can always add up different life stories within a story , and develop different characters.
iW: Would you ever make a film with lighter humor in it?
Panahi: I have no idea what my next film will be! It depends on the subject matter that will inspire me. If the subject is lighter and more fun... I don't feel that I'm obliged to have one way, one look, one vision, one angle on life. I feel free enough and open enough to change my vision of the world and maybe have another type of look. And maybe in two days time I will not even accept my own opinion of two days ago, and maybe I will be even more insistent on what I did before and accentuate it even more.
iW: What is the effect of the critical acclaim you have got for your films in Cannes and Venice?
Panahi: It influences my countrymen to want to see my film. Even though it's not shown in Iran, they're curious about seeing the film, and they manage one way or another to find a copy of the video through somebody to see the film. It's true that "The Circle" was never screened in public in Iran, but lots of videos are being passed from one person to another, and lots of people have seen it.
iW: Do you feel that your films can make a difference?
Panahi: You have to be very optimistic, but I don't think that my films can change anything in Iran. Maybe it can just make people think a bit more and question other things. It's enough for me that people can just take a bit of time to think about the subjects that the film raises.
iW: How difficult is it to make a film with all the censorship in Iran?
Panahi: When you live under these conditions, you have to find a solution. If they know that there is a film that is going to create difficulties and is not going to be shown, they will do everything to stop it before you finish it or start it. It's very simple: first you have to give your script to the Ministry of Guidance, and then they give you permission to start the film. With "Crimson Gold," I only submitted a brief synopsis, and then shot what I wanted to.
iW: Your friend Babak Payami ("Secret Ballot") was banned from returning to Iran after smuggling his film out of Iran for the Venice Film Festival. What would happen if you too were banned from returning?
Panahi: I would come back.