A man enters a seaside villa and before doing anything else goes through every room, closing all the curtains. There are huge windows on every floor, looking out on the vast expanse of sea. There are a lot of curtains to be closed. There are three floors of windows to be dealt with. It is his first order of business. Following his closing of all the curtains (which is shown every step of the way), the man returns to the bags he left by the door, squats down and opens an oblong duffel bag. A little dog’s head pops out. (This is a dog named “Boy,” and it has to be one of the most adorable lively LIVING dogs I’ve ever seen in cinema.) The man pulls out a tennis ball and throws it, and the dog goes scampering to fetch it. They do that for a while. Later, we see the man in the shower. He emerges, rubbing his hair dry. From upstairs, comes the sudden sound of the television. He goes to investigate. The dog was flopped on the couch, his body activating the remote. On the television is a news program, a voice droning on about how dogs are “banned by the Islamic Republic”, and there have been recent crackdowns on those who break the rules. There is horrifying footage of a pile of dead dogs in the street, workers picking them up by hooks, and throwing their dead bodies into the back of a truck. This is obviously real footage. The man turns the television off.
That happens about 15 minutes in, maybe more. It is the information we needed to process what we have seen thus far.
There is more that we need to know to process Closed Curtain, the latest film from Jafar Panahi, the talented Iranian director who recently was imprisoned and given a 20-year ban on making films because he was accused of developing a film about the Green Movement that was critical of the current regime in Iran. Panahi’s troubles made headlines worldwide. You can read some background here. I’ve written about Panahi a lot. He is one of my favorite directors and his situation has been heartbreaking, and an outrage. Despite the ban, he has continued to make films, amazingly, heroically, two since the ban came down, This Is Not a Film (which was smuggled out of Iran on a zip drive buried within a cake) and now Closed Curtain.
Panahi’s films, prior to the ban, were big sprawling urban films, shot on the streets of Tehran, with big casts of non-professional actors (all of them incredible). That is no longer possible for him. This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain were both filmed entirely indoors, one in Panahi’s Tehran apartment, and one in his summer house on the Caspian Sea. The people who work with him are harassed, arrested, their passports revoked. And yet people continue to work with him, a testament to … well, everything that is GOOD in the human race. These people onscreen are risking everything to work with this man. They do it because what is happening to Jafar Panahi is wrong, in the clearest black-and-white sense, and they stand with the artist, with his right of free expression. Their mere presence is evidence of heroism.
It is impossible to watch This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain and not be in awe of everyone who agrees to be onscreen (and behind the camera) to make it happen. It is also impossible to watch these films and not be destroyed emotionally. I was destroyed by This Is Not a Film, which I saw first at a press screening at the New York Film Festival. I was sitting with my friend Keith, and when the credits rolled (all of the credits were blank, to protect the small skeleton crew involved), I burst into tears, and Keith sat with me, in tears himself, saying, “So so good.” And I was destroyed by Closed Curtain, which I saw yesterday at the Cinema Village.
What we are seeing is an artist grappling directly with his own reality. I mean, artists do that all the time. Personal work is personal work. But if you didn’t know that Closed Curtain was being filmed despite the ban, what would it look like? If you didn’t know that this was a film made by a man whose livelihood and artistic expression has been denied him (for all intents and purposes for good: He’s 50 years old. A 20-year ban is practically a death sentence), what would you think of Closed Curtain? The woman sitting behind me was openly and sometimes loudly confused.
Panahi had been dogged by the regime for years before his imprisonment. Iranian directors become master obfuscators, finding ways to get around the censorship through analogy, metaphor, or they just avoid the issue entirely by making films about so-called benign topics (there’s a reason why kids are so often featured in Iranian films). But even there, political and social elements come into play. It is impossible to watch, say, Children of Heaven, and not notice the critique of the class divide in Tehran, already getting into iffy waters. But because it’s a sweet and comedic and touching story about children, the regime didn’t have a problem with it. Aso, it became an international hit, and once that happens, the regime is usually in a sticky position. Films that “make it” out here in the West make THEM look good, and so there is this wary respect given to its artists, artists who are usually far more celebrated outside of Iran than inside Iran (at least officially. Iranian citizens LOVE their artists.) Asghar Farhadi is an awesome example: His film, A Separation, was an enormous hit, and won the Oscar for best foreign film (deservedly so). Farhadi has been doing excellent work for years. Because A Separation swept the awards seasons internationally, the repressive regime in Iran had no choice but to back up these artists, and “let them” all travel to Hollywood to attend the Oscar ceremony. But it is important to remember that the mullahs are always watching: Leila Hatami, one of the stars of A Separation, one of the biggest stars in Iran, just got in trouble at the Cannes Film Festival, for kissing the 83-year-old president of the jury. Hatami was also on the Cannes jury, and it was a kiss of greeting, because that’s what people do in the West, and Hatami probably knew her goose was cooked the second that elderly gentleman kissed her on the cheek as opposed to shaking her hand. She is at the Cannes Film Festival, and the regime back home put out a warning that she would be “flogged” upon her return to Iran for that indiscretion. So Leila Hatami, award-winning celebrated actress, made a public apology for that kiss, saying she had tried to shake the guy’s hand, but he kissed her anyway. I mean, this is the ridiculous bullshit that these fantastic Iranian artists have to put up with. Hatami’s kiss is a petty example of the amount of control the regime has over its citizens. Panahi shows the end result of that kind of medieval fundamentalist dictatorial mindset.
So. Basically if you go into Closed Curtain not knowing all of this, it might be a confounding and puzzling and frustrating experience. So yes, I would suggest educating yourself, and I would also suggest seeing the film. I would suggest seeing all of Panahi’s films, pre-and-post ban. He’s marvelous. And here he is, making a movie he is not supposed to be making, about a man hiding out from the regime because he wants to keep his dog safe …
There are multiple levels it all works (and that is often the case with Iranian film, where one cannot be too direct). The “closed curtain” of the title refers to the practical desires of Iranian citizens to have some privacy in their own damn homes. The “closed curtain” is also indicative of fear of the outside world, where you are not allowed to have a dog as a pet, and so the gentleman we see has gone into hiding to keep his beloved dog safe. The “closed curtain” could also be seen, though, as an ominous reminder that Panahi’s life as an artist may very well be coming to a close. That the curtain is about to fall on his career. I couldn’t get away from that thought as I watched the film. Is this a good-bye? Is this Panahi taking a final bow before disappearing? Please, God, no. But how long can he go on? How long can this standoff remain? How long will the authorities tolerate his rebellion? What is going to happen to him?
The first hour of the film shows the man and his dog in the house with the closed curtains. We see him trying to figure out how to let the dog go to the bathroom without actually going outside. We also see the man sitting at a table in front of a fireplace, writing down words on a page, describing his time with his dog in simple active terms: “The man wakes up. The dog licks his face.” So he appears to be narrating his own life. For what purpose? Who is this man?
He is, by the way, played by Kambozia Partovi, who also gets a co-director credit on the film and has been a Panahi collaborator for years (he wrote the screenplay for The Circle). He also wrote the screenplay for Deserted Station, starring the aforementioned Leila Hatami, as well as the script for I Am Taraneh, I Am Fifteen Years Old, another small international art house hit. (Taraneh was played by Taraneh Alidootsi, who also appeared, unforgettably, in Asghar Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday as well as Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, giving you a real sense of how small the film community is there, like an energetic regional theatre company.)
In Closed Curtain, Partovi acts. And he is playing a writer. And it appears that the character is writing a screenplay about a man and his dog. Also, later in the film, we see him actually filming something with his iPhone, narrating out loud how he emptied the dog’s litter box outside. So the man we see is played by an actual writer and director, who here is acting, but also playing a writer, who then inadvertently becomes a director, and all of it is filmed by a director who has been banned from directing. You can see how these levels have gigantic reverb, an echoing abyss of associations for an audience who is aware of them. It removes the film from a strictly literal context, something that becomes explicit halfway through the film when Jafar Panahi himself strolls into a scene.
Is he there? Or not there? Is Partovi, then, a figment of Panahi’s imagination? Or a literal representation of Panahi’s creativity, which is under attack? There are other characters, a woman who shows up on the doorstep on a stormy night, on the run from the police herself (Maryam Moqadam). She needs shelter. But perhaps she is not who she says she is either.
Maybe she is the despairing side of Panahi, the one who feels he can’t go on anymore, the man who stares at the ocean out of his window, and dreams of walking into the water, and continuing to walk, until the waves swallow him up. A battle starts to take place, with Partovi and the woman arguing about Panahi, basically a tug-of-war between these two elements, which then calls into question everything we’ve seen in the film thus far.
There’s a moment where we see Jafar Panahi, through a full-length wall-length mirror in the upstairs room, and he pulls down the gigantic white curtains on the wall, revealing huge posters for all of his films. The Circle, Mirror, The White Balloon, and all the rest. There was an upraised-middle-finger in that moment, a clear message that You cannot take this away from me. You can deprive me of making more films, but the films I have already made are out there and they will continue to live. Panahi himself is a gentle presence, making tea, staring out the window, and not aware that his home is also populated by two other figures, the writer and the woman, who sit and watch him, wondering when he will sense their presence.
It’s surreal, and yet it’s one of the most personal statements from an artist I have ever seen. He is telling us what it is like for him. He is telling us his struggles. He is telling us how hard it is to keep going, to keep planning, to wait until his 20 years are up and he can make movies again. Could he make it that long? Will he last? The sea beckons.
The final moment of the film is so acutely life-affirming and mischievous that I thought I would have a heart attack from the sheer level of hope I was seeing blasting off that screen, life-and-death persecution notwithstanding. I wanted to cheer.
But as I’ve said before: Closed Curtain, in and of itself, does not make me feel hopeful. It makes me feel outraged at what is being done to Jafar Panahi. I salute him from across the world. Christopher Hitchens tells a story about the Salman Rushdie fatwa and how ferocious Susan Sontag was in response: tireless, on fire, the best of activism encapsulated in one woman, who refused to shut the hell up about what was being done to Salman Rushdie, and who refused to let people sit on the fence about it. Her behavior was the definition of rallying the forces of Right against the forces of Wrong. Hitchens was in awe of her, and he tells the story of how Sontag was talking on the phone with Rushdie, while Hitchens was present, and Sontag said something like, “Salman! I feel like I’m having a love affair with you! Every day I wake up and you are the first thing I think about!”
Jafar Panahi has been officially silenced by the regime in Iran.
And yet he refuses to be silenced.
Closed Curtain is a devastating experience when you are aware of Panahi’s reality and yet it is also a loud clarion call declaring his freedom. Why are we here on this earth? If we are artists, then we must make our art. Limitations have been placed on Panahi, limitations that would crush the majority of people. He has not been crushed, although one can only imagine the toll placed on his psyche and soul by his situation. There are moments in Closed Curtain that are as bleak, personally, as anything I have ever seen.
But I keep thinking about that final shot. What it says, what it could signify. It has the twist of irony and mischief that has been utilized by populations dominated by totalitarian governments since the dawn of time. Vaclav Havel used to say that he survived living under Communism because he lived “as if” he were free. And he paid the price for that, in imprisonment, harassment, and the impossibility of making a living in his own country. His plays were famous world-wide but banned in his home country. But he was determined that they would not own his spirit or soul. He refused to acknowledge a system that was so brutal and unfair. He insisted on living “as if” he were free. Panahi is doing the same thing. You can almost hear him saying to himself, over and over again, “I am free. I am free. I am free. All evidence to the contrary … I am free. I am free. I am free.” That is what the last shot said.
I cannot imagine what it is like for this man to continue to try to work under these conditions. Every time he picks up a camera he puts his life in danger. And yet he continues to do so. What he was able to accomplish in Closed Curtain, filming in secret, with people who are probably now in trouble for appearing in it, represents the best of who we are, as a people.
And yet still … still … it’s an outrage.