By Steven Zeitchik
7:00 AM CST, February 12, 2013
On Tuesday night at the Berlin Film Festival, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi will debut his new movie “Closed Curtain.” Panahi himself won’t be there to present it, of course; he remains under house arrest in Iran, and the premiere is scheduled to be anchored by Kamboziya Partovi, Panahi's actor and co-director.
Since being sentenced to a 20-year filmmaking and publicity ban in late 2010, Panahi has been downright prolific. While many bans tend to have a paradoxically healthy effect on filmmaking, in Panahi’s case it’s been something of an IV injection.
The auteur first completed “This Is Not A Film,” a piece of anti-cinema premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival that took viewers behind the director’s life as an artistic pariah and both confronted and subverted the ban. (The movie was well-received by critics and shortlisted for the documentary Oscar category this year.)
Then, last year, the decorated director of “The White Balloon” and “Offside" set out to make a new film. According to a person familiar with the effort who asked for anonymity because of Panahi’s sensitive security situation, “Closed Curtain” (a switch from an earlier working title of “The Veil”), centers on an isolated man who is taking care of an abandoned dog --in itself a subversion since dogs are considered unclean by many in Islam. (The canine also can be read as a symbolism of a brutalized Iranian people, though Panahi is too smart and subtle to make that point overtly. Ditto for the title.)
A woman on the run from her own troubles soon turns up and becomes embroiled in the situation of the man and his dog. Before long Panahi shows up as himself, as the film moves from realism to surrealism and, ultimately, back again. (We’ll have a fuller report from Susan Stone, our correspondent in Berlin, after the screening Tuesday night.) Panahi shot “Closed Curtain” at his beach house, another clever workaround to his house arrest.
With a complicated and increasingly inconsistent set of rules, the Iranian regime has made it extremely hard for directors to shoot in Iran. It’s no accident that the young Iranian Asghar Farhadi, whose “A Separation” won the foreign-language Oscar last year, made his follow-up in Paris and is unlikely to make a movie in Iran anytime soon.
But Panahi presents a unique problem to the Iranian government, since his profile makes it difficult to further punish him without engendering protests and discontent. A movie like this may taunt the regime but, by keeping Panahi on the international cinema map, it also comes as its own form of insurance.
The director has been lauded for his bravery in continuing to work even as the specter of jail hangs over him. But his work at this stage of his career goes beyond that. “This Is Not a Film” was more than just a formal gimmick--it deepened our understanding of expression and art. And with its blending of fiction and documentary, “Closed Curtains” may show a veil being lifted on a new type of work.
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