The Circle is about political oppression. The film, banned by Iranian authorities, follows a series of women in Tehran as they try to elude persecution and harassment by policemen, government representatives, and other men who feel entitled to abuse them because they are women and so “deserve” abuse. It is structured as a “circle,” in the sense that each woman’s story leads you to another’s, and then another’s—the oppression is so pervasive, so all inclusive, that no woman can escape. It’s an elegant film, though distressing to watch, offering little hope for the women you meet along the way, all resilient, resourceful, and trapped.
How ironic, then, that the man who made The Circle, award-winning Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (his first film, 1995’s The White Balloon won the Cannes Film Festival’s Camera d’Or), has recently had his own distressing encounter with official policy, on the part of that bastion of free speech and democracy, the U.S. government. Though he has traveled in the U.S. in the past, in order to present his films at film festivals in New York and elsewhere, he has always refused to be fingerprinted by the State Department, which routinely fingerprints citizens of countries accused of sponsoring terrorism. Until this January, Panahi has been granted a waiver from this policy, but the Bush Administration announced that such waivers would no longer be granted, for anyone. Fine. Panahi decided not to visit the U.S. But then he changed planes in New York en route from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires. And though he was assured he would have no trouble, indeed he did. He was detained for 12 hours, his feet shackled to a bench, without being granted a phone call, to seek either legal or translation assistance (the director does not speak English).
In Iran, as Panahi’s film demonstrates, women cannot smoke cigarettes in public. In the United States, Iranians—just because they are Iranians—cannot walk about in public without “proper” documentation.
The effectiveness of The Circle lies in its attention to details—it shows what it feels like to be watched, to be afraid, to be angry and to be disappointed, all the time. Not only does it reveal the large pains produced by oppression—as in a scene when a poor, husbandless woman (Fatemeh Naghavi) leaves her little girl on the street outside a hotel, hoping that someone will take the child in and offer her a better life than she can. But it also shows little pangs, niggling and persistent, the wear-you-down daily horrors that will never go away, so you must get used to them.
Nargess (played by Nargess Mamizadeh, and whose name means “Daffodil” in Farsi) is newly released from prison, and trying to get back to her village in western Iran, but she lacks the proper papers. Her friend Arezou (Maryam Parvin Almani, “Wish”) prostitutes herself in order to get Nargess’s bus fare, but refuses to travel with her, concerned that because she has heard so much about the “paradise” Nargess has described to her, that she will only be disappointed when she sees it—and she cannot bear more disappointment. Another friend, Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orafai, “Fairy”), is four months pregnant and unmarried (her lover has been executed in prison), which means that she and her child are doomed. She tries to get an abortion, but the woman she asks for assistance—Elham (Elham Saboktakin), who works in a hospital—is afraid to help, for fear of irritating her own man, who also works at the hospital, and can be seen through windows and doorways, a threatening figure whenever the women spot him. Pari can only get an abortion with a husband’s consent.
Women in The Circle come up against one obstacle after another: in its first moments, a young woman gives birth behind a closed door, screaming while her own mother waits outside in another room. When the mother learns that her daughter has given birth to a girl (when the ultrasound had suggested she was having a boy), she can only react with dismay, knowing that the husband’s family may demand a divorce, because she has not delivered the expected and much desired son. A girl child is only a burden. Every story is more of the same, yet also individual and newly terrible, as the women (many first time actors) subtly convey the strength and determination needed just to get through their days. The camera is restless—tracking, circling, observing, but never intruding—suggesting the impossibility of really understanding the day to day duress of being a woman in this lifelong situation. It’s a beautifully understated and powerful technique, drawing you inside and keeping you at a distance at the same time.
When a prostitute (Mojhan Faramarzi) is picked up toward the end of the film, she sits quietly on the bus taking her to be booked and incarcerated, watching the cops joke and talk with one another. This routine is familiar to her, and tedious. For a brief moment of respite, and taking a cue from one of the cops, who starts smoking on the bus, she lights her own cigarette, and draws deeply. For an instant, she is free, while on her way to jail.