Saturday, October 26, 2013

Short notes from the Mumbai festival: Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain

“I’m sure it’s the right address,” the woman says, “No other house looks like this one.” She is searching for her sister who, she has been told, hid in this beachside villa two nights ago. But the door has now been opened by a stout, middle-aged man (the director Jafar Panahi, playing Jafar Panahi) who knows nothing about the missing girl.

This is a scene late in Panahi’s new meta-film Closed Curtain, a work that might puzzle anyone who doesn't know the Iranian director’s back-story: the ban on his movie-making, the house arrest, his continuing fugitive attempts to practice his art, and to do so by making films that explicitly comment on his own situation. His last movie – with its poignantly ironical title This is Not a Film – was shot partly on iPhone and featured him talking to the camera about the projects he has in his head, projects he is no longer permitted to bring to cinematic life. Closed Curtain, by contrast, begins by appearing to be a narrative film (about a screenwriter and his impossibly cute dog) – for a few scenes it is as if Panahi has succeeded in realising one of the visions he discussed in This is Not a Film.

But around the halfway point we are reminded again that nothing in this director’s life and work fall within the bounds of “normalcy” any longer. The narrative is interrupted, the fourth wall is, almost literally, torn down: Panahi enters the house that has been the scene of the action so far; he takes down curtains, revealing wall-posters of his own previous films; the effect is a little reminiscent of the ruptures and interruptions in Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna. The characters we saw in the conventional-narrative section of the film – the screenwriter, his dog, two people seeking shelter from the authorities – stop functioning as elements of a coherent story and begin to move in and out of our line of vision, seeming less like real people and more like phantoms (perhaps ghostly manifestations of half-structured ideas in the mind of a writer-director who lives in chains). Other people come in and interact with Panahi, but again we are unsure whether they are “real” or visitations from another half-imagined story.

These intersecting narratives touch on similar matters: being in hiding with the things that are most important to you, trying to get your work done, or simply living your life, with the constant threat of someone bursting in and taking everything away. The writer in the “regular” narrative must cover all his windows with black curtains, because dogs are considered unclean by the regime he lives under; the writer-director Panahi in the meta-narrative doesn't have the freedom or resources to tell his story properly, or to engage with the world while telling it, which means there are metaphorical black curtains around his mind.

As Panahi and his fictional characters move in orbit around each other, other questions arise too. We often romanticise highbrow art as an essentially closed process – being principally about the relationship between the artist and his creations, like the literary writer who says “I write primarily for myself” – but does art have any value, or purpose, if it cannot (at least to a limited degree) be shared? And then, if it does reach the outside world, can the relationship be strictly one-sided? What happens when the world begins to intrude on it, deconstruct it, or even demand that it conforms to certain standards, values or rules?

All of which means that Closed Curtain is a self-conscious, self-referential film, but given its context it is also a deeply moving self-conscious film, an artist's cry of defiance. In terms of form, it is an abstract and "difficult" work, but it is also a plea for greater openness - for doors to be unbarred, for curtains to be removed. And the woman in that scene mentioned above is dead right on one front: if this secluded villa is a metaphor for Panahi’s current cinema (or for the mind striving to produce that cinema), it is true that no other house looks anything like it.

1 comment:

  1. Recently saw his "This is not a film" I marvel at his ability to make supposedly banal occurrences so engaging. The other Panahi films I have seen are "Offside" and the terrific "Crimson Gold". Have you seen any of his other movies?