Film Review: Closed Curtain, DIR. Jafar Panahi (2014). IRAN
Closed Curtain is Jafar Panahi's second film since he was banned from making films. The last one made during this period was called This is Not a Film. Prior to being banned from filmmaking he had directed many short films, documentaries, and five feature films and won many international awards. His first feature and the best-known in the US was The White Balloon which won the Camera d’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and was Iran’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 68th Academy Awards. He is considered one of Iran’s most influential filmmakers along with Abbas Kiarostami from whom he learned his craft working as his assistant. They are both part of the Iranian New Wave film movement.
However, as his humanitarian concerns became the dominant themes in his films he began to have problems with the Iranian censors and government. He portrays women, children, and the poor against the backdrop of a severe and repressive government and society. It is not a flattering picture of the latter. Although not overtly political, three of his five feature films were banned in his country, and he faced much official harassment in the form of confiscation of footage and equipment, threats against him and his family, and numerous arrests of both him and his collaborators. His final arrest in 2010 called for six years imprisonment and banned him from making, directing or writing any films, giving interviews, or leaving the country for 20 years.
He is considered a hero by human rights activists and in 2012 was a winner of the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament which honors those who have demonstrated the courage to combat oppression and intolerance to defend freedom of expression. In 2011 Time Magazine listed him as number three on their list of Top 10 Persecuted Artists, after Ai Weiwei and M.F. Hussain. He is a dedicated dissident and refuses to be silenced about the conditions and injustices in his country and elsewhere, even at the cost of his own liberty. The list of activists who have taken action on his behalf is long and impressive.
All of this background is essential to understanding Closed Curtain. He has been released from jail but is living under house arrest in an existential prison by virtue of not being allowed the freedom to express himself through his art. He has given himself more license to use the tools of his craft than in the prior work from the banned period, This is Not a Film (2011). This film simply documents the limits of his exile; we see him discussing his court cases and the films he hopes to one day be allowed to make, talking with neighbors, and watching the news. This was filmed entirely on a camcorder and an iPhone and smuggled out on a pen drive. It was screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Unlike This Is Not a Film,Closed Curtain's characters are played by actors. Ittakes place inside his beach house as well as inside his mind. It opens with the furtive arrival of the owner of the house, a screenwriter, with his dog hidden in a bag. The moment he arrives, he quickly closes all of the curtains and covers all of the windows with blackout fabric. We see, via a news broadcast on TV, the reason for the secrecy. It seems that the govern- ment has deemed dogs to be impure under Sharia law and banned their ownership or public walking and is slaughtering them brutally. Once he feels secure in his house he settles down to write in his self-imposed exile.
However, his carefully-planned refuge is soon violated by a pair of intruders, a brother and sister who also claim to be hiding from the authorities. They have been at a beach party which was raided on account of the use of alcohol, also banned. He tries to get them to leave, but only the boy goes, in search of a car, leaving the girl behind. She brazenly ignores all of the writers’ house rules and requests for privacy. She seems to intimidate him by her constant refusal to behave. Their interactions become stranger and stranger with a sense of dread in the air. It has been likened to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. She keeps disappearing and re-appearing only to disrupt his futile attempts to write. He even builds a hiding place for himself to escape her intrusion.
As his paranoia increases, the police come to the house looking for the young couple. They give up and leave, only to be followed by vandals who break one of the big picture windows and ransack the house while he is in his hiding place. There is a clear influence of Luis Buñuel. Suddenly there is a complete shift. Panahi, himself arrives, as himself. He is the owner of the house and he calls his neighbor, the caretaker, to have the glass is repaired. The ominous mood lifts and actions become understandable and even banal. However, the writer, his dog, and the girl who are visible to us are not visible to him. They discuss their future with each other, recognizing they have become irrelevant. And we realize that they are creatures of his imagination and have no life of their own. They are characters in a film waiting to be made.
It is a claustrophobic and intense allegory of his current circumstances. More broadly, it is a compelling micro vision of life in a repressive society, remarkable for its breadth, given that it is entirely filmed in one interior location and made on a shoestring budget. The message comes across.
Closed Curtain was shown in the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 and won the Silver Bear for best screenplay. Panahi was not allowed to leave Iran to accept the award. He remains under house arrest.
Text by Belle McIntyre