Jafar Panahi and the Courage of a Lion
By Ahmad Rafat
“We chose this film because of its beauty, and above all for the courage of its director in dealing with the social conditions of his
country’s women.” These were the words of Milos Forman, president of the Venice Film Festival, as he handed over the competition’s most prestigious prize, the ‘Leone D’oro,’ (Golden Lion). The proud recipient was young Iranian director Jafar Panahi, whose third film, Dayereh (The Circle) has returned home from Italy triumphant.
In fact the film’s beauty and its director’s courage were exactly the same reasons cited by UNESCO, the International Federation of Critics, and the International Organization of Catholic Critics, who praised Panahi’s masterpiece as the best film of all seen at Venice this year.
One could say Jafar Panahi, aged 35, is getting used to this kind of praise.
He has already won dozens of prizes for his previous films. With Badkonak Sefid (White Balloon) he won the ‘Camera D’Or’ at Cannes for the best prima opera. His second work, Ayneh (The Mirror) netted him another whole range of international awards.
“Every prize makes a director happy, especially if it’s such an important award,” says Panahi, ‘Golden Lion’ in hand. “Of course it’s an honor for me to add this Lion to the collection of prizes Iranian cinema has won so far.
In fact, it’s this year that Iranian cinema celebrates its hundredth
birthday. And it’s to all those who worked for Iranian cinema during the past century, and to all the wonderful people of my country, to whom I dedicate this Golden Lion. All this said, however, the biggest satisfaction for me is shooting the final take of the final scene, of a film. Prizes, of which I have won many, just add the finishing touch to the joy of having created something.”
Following is the full text of the interview with World News Link:
Q: Three films, all award-winners. How do you explain this success of yours?
Answer: You need to ask the festival jurors that! It’s probably because I’ve been lucky enough to submit films to the festivals where there were jurors who liked my work. I make films according to my own tastes, and you can see they’re ordinary things that everybody likes. In all honesty, I don’ t know how to answer your question. Seriously speaking, all I can say is that when a film talks about human beings, even if it’s filmed in the most abandoned corner of the world, it becomes universal and manages to capture the attention of the public wherever it’s shown.
Q: At Venice they gave you the ‘Golden Lion,’ while in Tehran Dayereh was excluded from the Fajr Cinematic Festival, which took place in February.
A: In my country, restrictions like that go back a long way. 37 years ago, before the Islamic revolution, the film Gav (The Cow) by Dariush Mehrjoui was censored and had to be sent to the Venice festival clandestinely.
Luckily for me, I obtained permission to export my film three days before I was due to leave for Venice, as well as gaining a permit to show it in Iran too. We directors also live in circles that are often far too narrow. We need to fight to widen the limits we have around us.
Q: A male director making a film entirely dedicated to women and their problems…
A: I wouldn’t look at the film like that. I don’t talk about women, but about human beings. It’s women in this film, but in my previous film it was children, and perhaps in the next one it'll be men. I choose the theme, and only afterwards do I look for the protagonists. The main theme remains human beings and their problems.
Q: There are eight women protagonists in your story. An unwanted daughter, some former prisoners, abandoned wives, a prostitute: different stories but all with one common destiny: rejection…
A: They are eight people closed inside a circle from which they cannot escape. Like the former prisoners, they just find themselves stuck inside another one. Some protagonists escape from prison to then find themselves in an even bigger prison where not even their safety is guaranteed. All of us live in a circle and our freedom depends entirely on the range of this circle. We fight to widen its limits, yet sometimes we find ourselves in a circle that’s even more restricting. The life of the human being is one long fight against the circle that surrounds him, until he reaches the ideal circumference that will allow him to breathe with freedom.
Q: But do the women in today’s Iran have the freedom to fight to widen the circle around them?
A: The human being can’t live without hope. We’re always in motion, moving towards making our lives better and better, and of course sometimes we need a lot of courage.
Q: The male characters in your film, even the ‘good guys,’ all have a hostile and bullying attitude towards women…
A: I wouldn’t say that’s just in Iran, even if my film talks about Iran alone. This is a worldwide attitude. How many women are in positions in power in the world?
Q: Was your film inspired by a true story, or is it just the fruit of your imagination?
A: One day I was reading a newspaper, and came across a report about a woman who after killing her two daughters, committed suicide. This piece of news sparked many memories in me, among them a personal one that led me to think up the idea for this film.
Q: Can you tell us about this personal episode?
A: Twelve years ago, while my wife was giving birth in hospital, at the very same time I had my oral examination in which I had to argue my university doctorate. As soon as I’d finished, I ran to hospital. My mother came up to me, and said to me, ‘Jafar, don’t be angry. Your wife has given birth to a little girl.’ I was absolutely stunned. I already had one son, and I was so happy to have a daughter. But that wasn’t the case for my mother, and isn’t the case for many others either. That’s why I put in a scene at the beginning where there’s an unwanted daughter.
Q: Your film is essentially very condemnatory. Did you have problems getting permits for it?
A: It had a very difficult and problematic birthing process. But just like every parent, I don’t want to think back to the past. I want to enjoy its present and its future.
Q: As soon as the news got around that you’d won Venice, the conservative newspapers in Iran turning the whole thing into a scandal. Are you afraid for your future?
A: My film is a film made with all the necessary authorizations. I haven’t got anything to fear, and I hope that nothing happens, and the film can be released in Iran – Ahmad Rafat (WNL, Venice).
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)