The Circle (Dayereh) Jafar Panahi (Iran 2000) Nargess Mamizadeh; Fereshteh Orafely; Maryiam Almooni
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle, 21 April 2011 Ticket price: £5.00
Life in a concentration camp
In retrospect the Circle’s (C) last shot, a long circular pan is an ominous anticipatory journey, a portent of Jafar Panahi’s (JP) own chosen destiny. In the police cell, the camera pans off the disdainful supercilious look of the whore whose arrest we have seen and with whom we have ridden in the paddy wagon. The camera moves across the walls of the room. At first it appears the cell is empty. But as the camera continues its course it reveals the presence in the cell of all the women who have been in the film. Their faces stare out at us. The face of those who have lost the power to direct their own lives; the face of those upon whom the force and logic of power exercised. Faces whom power despises and punishes. A face that JP recognised even then as his own, ten years before he was handed a 6 year sentence of imprisonment for making propaganda against the regime.
I think the extraordinary feature of the Circle is that JP takes complete ownership of his film in the sense that the film allows only for one unequivocal reading of its meaning. As an expressive medium the Circle is shot using long takes in which the camera typically accompanies the women: as they watch as they hide as they flee as they walk as they wait. As the women move through the film JP’s camera is always with them to the extent that they no longer appear as objects of the camera lens. Rather the women are themselves the lens through which we can see the political system that they sustain through their degradation as in the extraordinary penultimate long shot where in a medium close shot we sit with the arrested whore as she is driven to the cells in the police bus. We partake both in her humiliation and her contemptuous response.
The Circle is an uncompromising attack on a country whose present political system bases its actual legitimacy on a systematic suppression of women. A political system that functions by the containment of women within the prison of the male psyche. Claiming a spurious religious provenance, the State has set up a repressive apparatus to encode and enforce the inferior status of women. This comprises a legislative code covering all aspects of their rights and behaviour in the public and private realms with specialised agencies tasked with duties of enforcement.
This system using a major group of a society as a ritual degraded scapegoat has a parallel reference in the use made of the Jews by the Nazis. It is different of course in context and intensity. I’m not saying that there are industrialised death camps in Iran. The points of similarity are in structured legally based and policed segregation. The similarity to which I point is located in the creation of apparatus of subjugation for some social groups. Twisted and distorted power systems can stabilise through demonisation processes. In Iran women are not quite seen as demons; but in their sexuality their emotional volatility their uncleanliness, they are seen always as potentially demonic entities. Women are projected threats to the pureness of the Male: Jews projected threat to the purity of the Aryan. The system at a stroke creates a self fulfilling psychic sense of superiority for the ‘pure group’ which has at the same time a given a stake in the social mechanism of vicious violent repression. This is what we see in the Circle.
With the Circle JP does not pull his punches; he makes no concessions in this respect to the sensibilities of Mahout Ahmedinejad and his psychotic cronies because there is no point: any more than there was any point to pander to sensibilities of Hitler and his henchmen. JP sends a message without compromise: Circle is an indictment of a political system and the cowardly forces mainly male, that sustain it. The system is rotten and criminal. As in Nazi Germany and other totalitarian regimes Iran operates, in particular by rewarding psychotic violent types of individuals with them secure and profitable employment as part of the apparatus whose purpose is the subjugation a particular social group. And in general Men are rewarded by giving them hegemony over women, giving them a sense of their right to an unalienable superiority.
Circle’s message is bleak and unforgiving of the ‘system’. But the Circle is no polemic because of the extraordinary way in which the film is shot and the complexity of the central metaphor, the circle, which is incorporated both in the narrative strips of action and in its style of the filmic composition. The circle is a female symbol and the narrative strips of action take the viewer from the long opening shot, with its wide parabolic pan, of the birth of a girl to the final cell shot already quoted. We go from the birth of a new being, a new soul within this system, that is immediately damned for being the wrong ’sex’, to death of spirit by crushing and pulping it through the repression apparatus. And yet, in the contemptuous demeanour of the whore as she rides in the bus there is a residual of hope.
The defining shots of the movie are all long, many of them huge circular 360 degree pans. These circular shots are in themselves composed as complete orbits of Iranian society, so that as we move through the circle we can see everything. The busy public agitation and movement of the men; the dead static shrouded nature of the women; the confidence of the male hunters the fear of the hunted women, the bride and the whore existing at different points of the same circle, the freedom of the men the imposition upon women to adhere to multiple legally sanctioned restrictions. We glimpse all of these fashioned into the slow interlocking circular shots, chains woven together that bind the women to the male social order.
Whilst not over stated sexuality lies at the core of the film. Repressive regimes that wish to operate like replicating machines are usually anxious to channel sexuality into approved forms. Sexuality as a strong individual subjective force resists. Such States usually operate dual standard morality based on appearances and disclosed or revealed infractions. Infraction is Ok as long as appearances can be maintained, (plausible deniability being the last line of defence) or if in the case of disclosed or revealed infraction, pleas for mitigation are sustainable. In Iran the woman as ‘ by her nature potential demon’ offers the male who ‘strays’ a solid stand-by excuse: he was corrupted by the insatiable sexual wantonness of womankind. At the same time women denied access to the employment market, or unmarriable perhaps because they are no longer virgins, are forced into marginal prostitution as a source of income. In seeking sex work, because of their marginalisation, they are caught in the double bind: the work towards which they are economically pushed has in this sexually repressed society many employment opportunities; at the same it makes them even more vulnerable to men, confirms their status as demons and legitimises the ideology of this society and its apparatus.