On Tuesday, Jafar Panahi, the award-winning Iranian filmmaker, was ordered to serve a six-year prison sentence by Iran’s judiciary. He was detained last week after inquiring about another director, Mohammad Rasoulof, who had been arrested earlier in July amid an intensifying government crackdown.
For the last three decades, Panahi, now 62, has made playful, smart and politically bold movies that ingeniously meld day-to-day realism about Iran with sly meta-cinematic perspectives. His humanist filmmaking has secured his place in the pantheon alongside the Iranian great Abbas Kiarostami while avoiding the sense that he’s merely undertaking cinematic experiments.
Panahi’s creative fervor hasn’t dimmed despite being officially banned from filmmaking and traveling in 2010, when he was arrested for supporting protests, jailed despite international outrage and then given the sentence that is now being enforced.
In the face of repression, Panahi kept finding novel ways of sneaking up on the world. Here are five highlights of his work, all available to stream or rent.
Panahi’s directing career begins with two different features about a child’s misadventures on the streets of Tehran. First came the charms of his 1995 debut, “The White Balloon” (which is also streaming on the Criterion Channel). But Panahi then hatched an unpredictable twist in “The Mirror”: This time, the little girl at the center of the film goes rogue on the director. It starts innocently enough when Mina (Mina Mohammad-Khani) gets out of school and waits around, but her mother is nowhere to be found. She hops a bus yet can’t figure out the way home, and so we watch the one-act dramas of people around her through her eyes. At a certain point, Mina announces that she’s had enough of acting and stalks off. This apparent break from fiction starts a new chapter, as Panahi (directing whatever it is we’re now watching) hustles to keep up with his AWOL star. It’s a marvelous introduction to his ability to tell tales even as the ground shifts beneath our feet.
The first few seconds drop us into the middle of an armed robbery in a dark jewelry shop. The gunman, Hussein, towers over the store owner, but he delivers pizzas for a living, and the break-in was a last resort. Using a screenplay written by Kiarostami, Panahi portrays a cross-section of Iranian society from the hapless man’s pizza runs around town, which bring him face to face with the country’s galling inequalities. Hossein is played by another of Panahi’s indelible nonprofessional actors, Hussein Emadeddin, who brings a bone-weary fatigue to a character identified as a war veteran (another controversial subject in Iran). Panahi’s previous film, “The Circle,” had won him the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2000, and the acclaim, he has said, emboldened him to make this moody, gripping portrait, which was banned in Iran.
A frequent joy in Panahi’s movies is his what-if approach to the sometimes absurd clash between modern life and conservative rules in Iran under religious rule. Here, a group of young women just want to go to a World Cup qualifying match in a Tehran stadium, but post-revolution law dictates that only men are permitted to attend soccer games. Disguises and shenanigans ensue (inspired by Panahi’s own daughter, who once slipped into a game and surprised him at his seat). But the women are detained just outside the entrance by soldiers, who would also rather be somewhere else. The documentary-style comedy finds humor in a ridiculous, maddening situation, with a cast drawn partly from university students. But it reflects Panahi’s evident passion for exposing what’s women endure in Iran, and there’s a barbed symbolism to the sight of Iran’s younger generation being relegated to the sidelines of life.
‘This Is Not a Film’
Stream it on Kanopy; rent or buy it on Kino Now.
Pure magic. Under house arrest, Panahi conjures up an engrossing, witty and original essay on artistic creation and the limits of control. He thinks aloud, he eats, he welcomes the odd visitor or talks to a lawyer, and he blocks out film ideas with tape on the floor of the comfy-looking apartment. (His daughter’s improbably massive iguana makes surreal cameos.) He does all this while technically being banned from making movies — hence that title, and hence the need to smuggle the film out of Iran. The appearance of puttering and improvisation belies the film’s depth of insight and the defiant resilience of its director, whose not-a-film you might just watch again to see how it’s done. (Fans of Panahi, and iguana cameos, can watch a pandemic quarantine variation by tracking down Panahi’s entry in the omnibus film “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” on Hulu.)
Panahi’s most recent feature — and one of his funniest — heads out to the countryside, far from his usual Tehran settings. It’s a beguiling mix of an urgent premise — Panahi and a famous actress (Behnaz Jafari) are tracking down a young woman from a disturbing cellphone video — and the happenstance of a road movie. The pair visit the hometown of the young woman in the video (whose family forbade her to act) and encounter some eccentric inhabitants, including an older, well-known actress living in exile. Shot in the village of Panahi’s grandparents near the Turkish border, the free-flowing movie paints a colorful contrast between certain hidebound salt-of-the-earth locals (who disapprove of entertainers), and the director and actress trying to make sense of it all. Like his best work, Panahi makes us feel as if we never go down the same road twice.