After making two feature films and many short films on children, director Jafar Panahi made a third feature film, The Circle, where he dealt with the condition of a wider gamut of the female gender in Iran. The new canvas included a girl child, a girl toddler left behind for adoption. a wide-eyed teenage girl, a pregnant mother whose spouse has been executed, a prostitute, the only wife of an expatriate doctor, the less-preferred first wife of a husband with two wives, a grandmother who wishes for a male grandchild and a possibly unmarried mother who can no longer support her girl child in Iran. The film's structure is somewhat similar to the later films of Robert Altman, presenting a collage of separate incidents involving varied characters that are somehow connected and come together at a crucial point.
The Circle begins and ends with a name of a woman--Solmaz Gholami--being called out through a door hatch. Interestingly, the film never introduces us to this character. It is apparently the name of a woman who has given birth to a girl child. The film instead introduces us to the grandmother of the child who is informed by the nurse that she is now has a girl grandchild. The hatch belongs to a white door of an operation theater in a hospital.
The film ends with the same name being called out from a similar hatch of another door—this time, it's a hatch of prison door of a room that holds most of the female adult characters that the viewer encounters in the film rounded up by the police for varied offences. Implicitly, the film states that women face discrimination from birth until death in Iran.
Evidently, the film suggests that someone had uttered a white lie earlier that the unseen Ms Gholami was to going to give birth to a boy after an ultrasound test of the foetus. The revised information of the arrival of the girl child upsets the grandmother living in a society that prefers a boy to a girl child.
In between the opening of the two hatches, the roving handheld camera underlines the state of an unusual group of women in Tehran, without identification papers or male chaperons, evading the police and a few eve-teasing males. The viewer is informed that most of the women (except the grandmother and two children) have either been paroled from prison or have escaped prison and are, therefore, on the run from the cops. Their original crimes are never stated. One woman is picked up by the police while she is making a call from a public phone booth. Once imprisoned, the women are afraid of the blot in their lives to the extent that they hide it from their husbands! They even run away from their own brothers who disapprove family members bearing children out of wedlock. Were these women imprisoned for possible sexual offences? None of the women seem to be politically active. They do not behave like petty criminals either. However, the film underlines one fact—if they are accompanied by either a husband or a father, or possess student identification papers, they would be relatively safe to move around freely. Some of these women are desperate to smoke a cigarette in public. They can only do so when the men (in the film, a policeman) are smoking in public! Yet these women do not wallow in self pity. They move on with resolute energy.
Mr Panahi is able to present interesting aspects of female bonding in Iran. Some women travel the extra mile to help other women in distress. Even a prostitute helps another woman to dodge the police. Then there are women who do not help others because they do not want their husbands to know that they were once behind bars. A mother leaves her girl child in the street in the hope that a stranger will provide a better life for her child. Who are these women ex-prisoners with no husbands? Are they representing the typical Iranian woman?
Any woman or sensitive man could be seduced by the subject of the film. However, the film ought to be evaluated beyond the obvious feminist issues. The film equally serves as a study of individuals (not just women) born into any society (and not just Iran) that deprives them of equal privileges. Many men shown in the film are caring men who help women in trouble rather than become their exploiters. Some policemen are arguably corrupt, yet decent, helpful cops are also shown. It would be presumptuous to classify The Circle as a feminist film merely because the female form covered in burkha/chador indicates a symbol of repression. The film is more humanist than feminist—which the director has asserted in interviews. One tends to agree with Mr Panahi on this point, if you accept the socio-cultural norms of Middle-East society, markedly different from Western and many Asian and African societies.
Women are indeed less equal than men in many parts of the Muslim world. I was privileged to visit Iran twice in recent years and interact with a cross-section of its population. Many women in Iran that I met are well educated, outspoken and enjoyed considerable freedom of movement without a shadow of obvious male dominance that Mr Panahi’s film indicates as an implicit requirement in the specific cases of his characters in this film. While Iranian women may not enjoy political clout, Iranian women do hold influential positions in education, law, research and business. They definitely do not require a man to chaperon them as suggested by the film.
However, it is likely that to abort a child in Iran is a difficult proposition as it would be in most other countries today. Similarly, it would be difficult in most countries for any young girl without identification papers to take a long distance bus ride all alone in the night. (Iranian women enjoy more relative freedom than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia—where women cannot even drive a car!) The unknown crimes of Mr Panahi’s women in The Circle are never clearly elucidated in the film except in the case of the prostitute. If they were political prisoners, there is no clue to substantiate this except that a pregnant woman states that her spouse has been recently executed. There is a wide-eyed girl who has never seen her village in recent years, who has evidently been in prison for some time. Why was she imprisoned in the first place? Do young women get imprisoned for no apparent reason?
Mr Panahi’s film seduces the viewer, until you begin to wonder, if even the fact that it was banned in Iran, is a viewer-seduction tool (many of the good Iranian films are banned in Iran, even though they do not contain sex or violence, merely because they are remotely critical of the current regime). The film was shot in Tehran and evidently the government did not have any problems at that time with the script. And then, bingo, it gets banned!
An interesting trivia to note is that the multiple international award-winning filmmaker Mr Panahi, who does not speak English, was treated like a terrorist in New York recently while changing international flights and kept in chains for a good part of a day just because he refused to be fingerprinted. The flip side is that Iranian immigration authorities are equally xenophobic of any non-Muslim entering that country even if they have proper papers.
I went up to Mr Panahi, 3 days after I viewed his film The Circle in Trivandrum, India, and congratulated him on having made an interesting film because I genuinely loved the film’s interesting elliptical structure and its wonderful performances by mostly non-professional actors. But some 3 months after I had viewed the film and reflected further on its contents, I am not sure if the film is as credible as I initially thought it was. Mr Panahi is obviously a very intelligent director who prefers to walk a tight rope by insinuating facts rather than stating them.
The Circle is an interesting film (made partly with Italian and Swiss resources) that offers considerable fodder for thought. As cinema, it is without doubt an intelligent work and deserved the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. It deserved the FIPRESCI award at San Sebastian. Yet it is a film that calls for close evaluation with an astute mind rather than with the heart of an impartial, impressionable viewer.