“Closed Curtain” is the fantastic new film from Iranian director Jafar Panahi (which also has a co-director credit for Kambuzia Partovi), and while I think the film is great, I believe that only those who have an understanding of Panahi’s current political status and his living conditions will get the most they can out of this film. Back in 2010, Panahi was arrested and charged with “creating propaganda against the Iranian government” and as such was sentenced to live under house arrest for six years, and banned from making films for twenty years which also included doing press or being interviewed by the press. This information is vital to know walking into “Closed Curtain” because Panahi never explains it in his film, he assumes the viewer knows his story, and yet it plays a massive part in the film’s proceedings. Less vital but still interesting to know is the fact that “Closed Curtain” was filmed entirely at Panahi’s holiday house.
It is no accident that “Closed Curtain” opens and closes with long static shots from behind bars. It almost immediately signals that the film is going to be autobiographical in nature, as there is no mistaking the visual representation of Panahi’s current incarceration. After staring at these bars for a long while, eventually an elder man enters the house and proceeds to immediately close all of the curtains and blinds in the house, even pinning thick black felt to them to block out the outside world. The reason for this is because inside the large bag that he was carrying was his pet dog. Due to the fact that Islamic law claims that dogs are “impure” animals, it is prohibited to own a dog and thus they can be destroyed upon sight, the man’s dog must remain out of sight from any prying eyes. Immediately I was impressed by the fact that Panahi was still fighting for what he believes in and it is obvious that he is disgusted by this law about dogs. There is some very graphic footage of dogs being terminated which is shown on the man’s television (which somewhat amusingly the dog is watching), showing just how barbaric a law (and the current regime in Iran) really is. For the rest of the film, I was expecting a nice “man and his dog” type film, but Panahi obviously has a lot more issues he needed to tackle, and soon after a metaphysical element enters the film when a girl, named Melika, and her brother appear on our unnamed main character’s doorstep. The brother asks for refuge for his sister while he has something else to do and while the man initially wants nothing to do with it, he ultimately agrees. As the brother is leaving he casually mentions that his sister is suicidal, which forces the man to never leave her side and the two talk through the night. When morning breaks, the brother still hasn’t returned and yet Melika has mysteriously disappeared. While the man is confused he doesn’t worry too much until later in the day when the girl suddenly reappears again. The film then adds a further “meta” quality to it after a window is broken and the curtains are torn down, when suddenly from outer frame in walks director Jafar Panahi himself, pondering the quality of his film and what he has to say.
Amazingly since his ban from filmmaking, Jafar Panahi has managed to make two films and get them smuggled out of Iran for worldwide viewing. Just the fact that these movies exist and available to watch is reason worth celebrating, but the fact that “Closed Curtain” is also a sensational piece of work, it is something of a miracle. Before the film began, I was expecting a film of very rough quality, shot on consumer grade digital video. Knowing the oppressive conditions Panahi had to work under, I was flabbergasted by just how great and polished “Closed Curtain” actually looked. To my surprise it looked just like a professional film and that, combined with the simple tale of a man and his dog, had me immediately reminiscing of Panahi’s debut “The White Balloon” which was another simple tale, this time about a young girl trying to purchase a goldfish on New Year’s Eve. The fact that Panahi was still making political statements within his films was just icing on the cake.
I was absolutely loving the simple tale of “Closed Curtain” and then the “meta” elements started entering the film. Initially I was taken aback by this change in both story and tone until I clicked into just how personal and revealing Panahi had suddenly made the film, not to mention how poignant it becomes. “Closed Curtain” becomes all about its director and his current feelings on life and his living situation. Panahi stops the film cold (by surprisingly appearing from outer frame) as he starts to question the validity of him portraying real life when he himself can no longer be a part of it. Therefore he struggles with whether he is the right person to accurately portray the issues that the people of Iran are currently suffering through when he can only view these things from a window, and if he is the right person, how can he be sure that what he conveys is actually reality. I personally found this so interesting and without knowing the trials in making “Closed Curtain”, I wondered if this is what actually happened. I wonder if Panahi initially set out to make a simple story about a man and his dog and then lost faith in his ability to accurately do so , and thus decided to dramatize his internal struggle instead, or if this was always the plan behind the making of the film. I do not have the answer to that, but would love to know it.
In this part of the film the characters of the unnamed writer and Melika start to change their purpose within the film as they become more allegorical in nature with the writer representing art or “the artist” and Melika representing death or the lure of suicide. This is an amazing insight into the director’s psyche as we see him struggle to choose between continuing to make art (or attempt to) or to just give up and end it all. Panahi seems to be saying that for him, a life without art or one where he is unable to create, is a life he would rather not live.
While all of this sounds like dark and depressing stuff, it really isn’t, as Panahi handles it all with a lightness of touch and even some comedy which makes it very easy to enjoy. One scene that I thought was particularly good and so honest was when the workers who fix the broken window ask Panahi for a photo together. Both of the men are so happy and proud to meet the great director who likewise is more than happy to take a photo with them. However at the very last second one of the guys decides to pull out due to it being far too risky for him to be photographed with Panahi, who understands why the man did it and yet does not make a big deal about it. I really found this to be such a sad moment in the film even though it is never played that way.
Overall, this is a brilliant and brave piece of cinema from Panahi (I have no idea what this is doing in regards to his ban and political status each time he defies the regime and makes a film) and I applaud all those involved in the making of “Closed Curtain”. The bravery by all the actors and crew cannot be undersold as they all risk persecution themselves just by being part of this film. In fact in February of this year, both actress Maryam Moqadam (who plays Melika) and co-director / actor Kambuzia Partovi both had their passports confiscated by the Iranian government so they couldn’t leave the country to promote the film at the Berlin Film Festival; scary stuff indeed. I really enjoyed this film and the psychological insight into one of the greatest voices in cinema today.