By Tomas Hachard
There’s a Communist joke that the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek loves to tell about the tricky nature of freedom of speech. A man moves from East Germany to Siberia, where he knows his letters will be censored. He establishes a code with his friends: anything written in blue ink is honest and true; anything written in red ink is false and only there to get the truth past the censors. A month goes by and the man’s friends receive a letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theaters show good films from the West. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.”
Speaking at Zuccotti Park, Zizek interpreted the joke as an allegory for the West (we have the freedom to do whatever we want but dissent; we have everything but red ink). But in his 2002 book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Zizek points out the subversive quality of the joke. In the absence of red ink, the letter writer still manages to get the truth about conditions of life in Siberia past the censors. The letter, the friends know, should have been written in red ink. The joke is about the illusion of freedom, but it is also about the various manipulations and contrivances to which individuals—or, for my present interest, works of art—must resort if they are to not only speak truth to power in the face of censorship, but, much more simply, speak truth at all.
Not surprisingly, then, Circumstance is a movie about escape, about hoping for change and then realizing that fleeing is the only option.
In the past year, three movies were released about Iran that found distinctive ways of eluding censorship in order to give us an intimate view of the effects of repression on individuals living in that country. Circumstance, A Separation , and This Is Not a Film have making-of stories closely tied to Iran’s lack of free speech; the first was filmed in Lebanon, the second was approved by Iranian censors, the third had to be snuck out of the country in a cake in order to be screened. But these films are not only noteworthy examples of works that “maintain resistance in the face of seemingly absolute power,” as Edward Wong wrote about Ai Weiwei in the New York Times. They share a specific form of resistance that provides a vision of the personal weight of repression, a notion of Iranian society as an enclosure that divides and slowly suffocates the individual, and, to differing degrees, a sense that such a situation cannot go on much longer without either the necessity of escape, a slow spiritual death, or, most radically, an outbreak of violence.
Maryam Keshavarz’s is a film influenced deeply by the Iranian diaspora. Keshavarz, the writer and director, was born in New York to Iranian parents, but spent her summers as a child with family in Iran; the two main actresses also now live outside of Iran, while members of their respective families still live there.
Not surprisingly, then, Circumstance is a movie about escape, about hoping for change and then realizing that fleeing is the only option. The film tells the story of two teenagers, Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) and Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri)—one from a wealthy, relatively secular family, the other from a poorer, more traditional one – who, we discover early on, are lesbians and in the midst of a love affair. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that they are just teenagers, experimenting and discovering their sexuality, but Circumstance makes clear how quickly identity can be formalized and reified in Iran and how dangerous a proposition experimentation can be.
When Circumstance begins, Shireen and Atafeh find escape from Iranian rigidities in apartment parties disguised as sewing classes, where drugs, alcohol, and sexual deviance are not only permissible but easily accessible. Shortly into the film, though, the two are arrested by the secret police for attempting to dub the film Milk into Farsi in Atafeh’s basement (at the behest of a visiting American friend). Upon their release, Shireen is married off to Atafeh’s controlling, conservative brother—the man who likely turned the girls into the police in the first place. As Circumstance goes on and Shireen and Atafeh must either conform to the restrictions on their behavior or directly confront them, the relatively naïve escapism from the beginning dissipates, first into the realm of Shireen and Atafeh’s fantasies—visions of liberation in Western clubs, dancing together and openly displaying their love and attraction—before extinguishing altogether. By the end of the film, the situation is dire enough that escape can only mean leaving the country.
Circumstance’s vision of Iran is that of an outsider looking in—in this case, of an ex-pat sadly expressing why it was impossible to stay in Iran (and, as with all the Iranians working on the film, jeopardizing her ability to go back to the country for fear of arrest once Circumstance was banned by the Iranian authorities).
At the same time, Circumstance’s characters are very much Iranians looking outward toward the possibility of leading their desired lives. What we get are characters wishing to be one kind of person who are instead forced to conform to another reality, or otherwise abandon their home and family.
Asghan Farhadi’s A Separation begins with similar themes. A husband and wife, Nader and Simin, sit before a judge. Simin requests a divorce, and if not that, then at least custody of their daughter so they can both leave the country. They have their visas. They are ready to go. “I don’t want to raise my daughter under these circumstances,” Simin pleads to the judge. “What circumstances?” the judge curtly responds. Not surprisingly, the judge decides against Simin, and at that moment A Separation’s focus turns inward toward Iranian society rather than outward toward what is, if we believe Simin, a more inviting world.
As in Circumstance, A Separation’s dramatic tension comes from the increasing enclosure of its characters. Simin decides to leave Nader, divorce or not, which forces Nader to hire a caregiver for his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The caregiver, Razieh, a devout Muslim, is in straits from the beginning: Certain aspects of the job conflict with her religious beliefs, but she needs the money to help pay off her family’s debt; the strictures of gender roles also means she cannot tell her husband that she is working; her commute, always with her young daughter, leaves her barely able to stay awake, let alone perform her duties.
One afternoon, Razieh leaves the apartment to run an errand. She ties Nader’s father to his bed, ostensibly to prevent him from hurting himself. Nader comes home to find his father almost dead, the caregiver nowhere to be found. A dispute follows when Razieh returns. In a fit of frustrated anger, Nader pushes her out of the apartment.
This push drives the film. Razieh was pregnant and has a miscarriage. Whether Nader knew about the pregnancy and if his push caused Razieh to lose her baby propels the murder mystery at the heart of A Separation. The potential consequences grow increasingly serious—up to three years in jail for Nader, legal prosecution against Razieh for her neglect of Nader’s father, lost family dignity for all involved. But the drama is equally a product of how such a small interaction suddenly leads each character to the edge of ruin. In the frame of a tense legal thriller, A Separation explores the heightened stakes of day-to-day life that drive people to reckless, unethical actions and into dangerous tangles of lies, but also toward isolation and emptiness. It shows how the weight of Iranian social structures—the courts, religion, family—mires individuals. But it is also a movie that offers only the most muted self-criticism as it looks at Iran’s current situation. By offering no alleviating conclusion, no sudden sense of liberation, Farhadi does make an implicit socio-political statement. Life weighs heavily on these characters and no relief comes by the end. But there is no explicit mention of what freedoms these characters ought to have that others in the world already do, of how things should be. There is only a demonstration of the travails of life as it is in Iran right now.
Iranian daily life is something both brutally present and sorely absent in This is Not a Film. In 2010, the movie’s star and co-director, Jafar Panahi, received a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban from making films for the crime of civil disobedience. This is Not a Film, made without the knowledge of the authorities, chronicles a day in his house arrest (although it was filmed over ten) as he awaits the result of his appeal.
Not that the movie is a courtroom thriller about deferred justice; early on, Panahi’s lawyer tells Panahi over the phone, ashamed, “They never completely overrule the decision.” And then, “The rulings aren’t legal rulings at all… [They] are 100 percent political.”
This is Not a Film’s forthright criticism of the legal process distinguishes it from A Separation, which, for all its presentation of the chaos and dysfunction of the courts, still resolves most of its problems there or through extra-legal family agreements. As befits a movie screened with permission from the authorities, A Separation does not call for a radical redoing of social structures; it only presents their cold, if chaotic, mode of functioning. In this sense, and probably only in this sense, Panahi benefits from having much less to lose.
In This is Not a Film, with the possibility of actual escape denied to him, Panahi, like Shireen and Atafeh in Circumstance, first seeks a secondary form of freedom through fantasy and imagination. He takes us through a one-man reenactment of his latest banned script, a story of a small town girl who tries to go to art school. A few lines of tape on the carpet mark the square stage, and Panahi painstakingly walks us through the planned scenes, both how they would be shot and what would occur on screen.
It’s not thrilling stuff to watch (certainly incomparable to actually seeing a film), and Panahi doesn’t fall for the illusion that he can imagine his way out of his problems for long. He retreats to his old films, which he plays on DVD for himself and his close friend and co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who is filming. He reflects on his favorite moments, the ones where his actors, all amateur, broke from the script or his direction. The greatness of his prior works, he sees, resulted from abandoning a plan. Looking back at his living room set, Panahi asks: “How can I really express myself within that boundary with the lines I drew?” Improvisation is the life of art, Panahi hints to us, and central to the art of life.
But This is Not a Film in many ways acts as a rejoinder to Panahi’s lament, for ultimately his movie is a powerful political expression created out of his confinement. The film ends with Panahi, who has snuck outside into the parking lot of his apartment building, filming a blazing bonfire across the street. The sounds of fireworks and celebration have been in the background all day as part of festivities for the Persian New Year. Reports keep coming of turmoil in the streets. Revolution is in the air.
A couple of months before This is Not a Film would emerge at Cannes, Rafi Pitts, a director who left Iran for Paris during the Iraq-Iran war but who continues to make his films in his home country, gave an interview with Sight and Sound about the state of Iranian cinema and politics, particularly in the wake of Panahi’s arrest:
It’s very hard. How do you change things? How do you move things forward? Jafar is a raging bull—it’s the reason I like him so much. He just goes for it. He’s very courageous, whereas I tend to believe that we need to be diplomatic. But today it’s all gone beyond that. I mean, it’s no longer a question of talking about how to change things, because now the question is: how can we exist at all?
Pitts says Iranians are making a political cinema of minimal intentions: “It’s just trying to hold up a mirror… We’re just trying to say, ‘Look what’s going on.’”
Pitts’ view reflects what the British writer and director Sally Potter wrote in a recent critical symposium on “The Prospects of Political Cinema Today,” published in the film quarterly Cineaste. Potter differentiated between political films that tell how things “ought” to be, and those which give “voice, shape, and form to the low growl of experience.” Circumstance, A Separation, and This is Not a Film all try, whether from necessity or choice, to express this underlying rumble of Iranian society, the everyday struggles that lie beneath the reality approved by the Iranian government. All three are attempts at finding the red ink.
A Separation stands out in this respect, since, as is well known by now, the Iranian government supported it and even chose it as the country’s candidate for the best Foreign Language Film Oscar, an award it went on to win. But the lack of a muzzle from a government so willing to apply one creates its own restrictions. The movie must bear its politics between the lines, in the frustrations of the characters, in the events that don’t occur or that couldn’t. “I know how to make my films so that they can be seen by an Iranian audience,” Farhadi told Cineaste. And by delicately parsing out the toil of living in Iran, A Separation pushes the viewer toward an unstated question, a version of the one posed by Pitts: Is this any way to live?
Circumstance and This is Not a Film are both able to answer that question with a resolute “no,” rather than simply ask it. The mere existence of This is Not a Film is red ink spilled where one might imagine it to be least available, as well as, by the end, a remarkable call for what needs to be done. While the three films may differ in how they see problems being resolved, they present an essentially united view of Iranian life, and, more importantly, a united prerogative: to discern what’s happening on the ground and give an untarnished glimpse of that reality.
This need not be, cannot be, only an Iranian concern, even if the stakes in their conflict are of the highest variety compared to those in the U.S and other Western countries. In 1974, the film theorist and curator Amos Vogel, who passed away in April, wrote about the indispensability of independent film in similar terms to Pitts and Potter. Hollywood films, he argued, serve “as a barrier between the self and reality” whereas more audacious independent films work to do the opposite.
In Iran, barriers much larger than a Hollywood film are continuously erected to hide reality. “There is a big layer of people in Iran who favor changes more radical than they would have two years ago,” an activist named Amir is quoted as saying in the New Yorker’s report on the 2011 elections. “But the dictatorship, the censorship—they don’t allow us to see each other.” Even so, activists and artists of all varieties press on to try to create points of connection, to remind likeminded people of each other’s existence, to illuminate in a country of obfuscation.
One off-putting aspect of Zizek’s joke, or at least how he uses it, is that it equates this struggle to express oneself in an authoritarian country with an American’s illusion of his freedom. But while the struggles in Iran and the West are profoundly different, and while it is certainly naïve to try to level them, an underlying connection exists in what they call for: the need to express daily realities that we may all experience, but which we do completely take in. What art does—what A Separation, Circumstance, and This is Not a Film all do—is confront what we might already know is there. Whether, after illuminating reality, art can do anything to also change it is murkier ground, although any such task would probably resemble what Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf said to Cineaste about the goal of Iranian filmmakers: “We don’t make films to make people conscious, they are already conscious. We make films to make people brave.”
Tomas Hachard writes film reviews for The L Magazine and has also written for The Rumpus, The Millions, and the New York Times‘ “6th Floor Blog,” among others. You can follow him on Twitter: @thachard.