With his third film, The Circle (Dayereh, 2000), Jafar Panahi established himself in the top rank of world film directors. His two earlier films, White Balloon (Badkonake Sefid, 1995) and The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997) had been well-received films about children, but bore the stamp of his earlier collaboration with Abbas Kiarostami. Indeed, The Mirror showed considerable innovation in its attempt to break out of the narrative confines of the Iranian child-centred movie. In The Circle, however, we see something strikingly new emerge.
The story begins in the waiting room of a Tehran hospital maternity ward, where an older woman is waiting to learn about the newborn child of her daughter, Solmaz Gholami. When informed that the child is a girl, the grandmother expresses dismay and fear that the son-preferring in-laws will abandon her daughter. The camera follows her exiting disconsolately out of the hospital and onto the street, where she passes three young women nervously crowded around a public telephone booth. At this point the narrative shifts to these three women, and the grandmother’s story is abandoned.
Thus begins the first of the four main narrative threads of the film. Each narrative thread is picked up in the middle of some unexplained context and left unresolved, as we are passed, as if by chance, to the succeeding thread. It is clear in this new thread that the three women are urgently trying to contact some friend, but are also concerned about being picked up and arrested by the police. Very soon, one of the three is picked up, and the other two women run away down the street. The story proceeds along a path of extreme slow-disclosure, because it is only after 37 minutes of running time that our suspicions are confirmed – we learn that these women have been released from prison on temporary leave and that they are now trying to make their permanent escape. In the case of the two remaining girls of this thread, their hope is to make their way to the home village of the younger of the two, Nargess. Since the girls do not have proper identification and they are not accompanied by any male relatives, their situation on the street is always precarious. We never learn what their original crimes were, but as the film progresses one gets the feeling that in this society merely being a woman is attached with some degree of guilt.
In order to get money for the bus ticket to Nargess’s village, the older girl, Arezou, apparently prostitutes herself and gives the money to Nargess, saying that she will remain behind. About to board the bus a few minutes later, Nargess sees that the police are checking IDs, and she runs away from the bus terminal, hoping to find her friend, Pari, another fugitive from prison. She does make it to Pari’s home, and soon the second narrative thread picks up Pari’s story and abandons Nargess. One soon suspects that Pari’s crimes were political, since we learn that her husband was executed in prison, and the now-four-months-pregnant Pari is hoping to find an abortion on the outside. Pari visits some acquaintances that she had made in prison, but they are barely able to cope with their own situations and are unable to offer much help. Soon, we are passed to the third narrative thread, a single-mother who has dressed up her daughter and left her in front of a hotel in hopes that she will be adopted by a respectable family. Dejectedly walking away from watching her daughter getting picked up by the police and taken away, she sees a male driver stop and offer her a lift. She gets in the car, knowing the suggestive nature of the act, but is startled to learn that this driver is in fact a zealous police officer who has been trawling for prostitutes and is arresting her for prostitution.
This police officer soon stops to talk to some fellow officers about another driver who has been stopped with an unrelated woman, and in the ensuing confusion, our single-mother gets out of the car unnoticed and escapes. Now we are to follow the fourth narrative thread, that of this new woman, evidently a hardened professional prostitute this time, who is being arrested for being with an unrelated man in a car. The driver of that car manages to talk his way out of arrest, but the new woman of our focus is bundled off on a police bus and taken to a prison. When she arrives, she is put into a cell, and the camera silently pans around the cell to reveal that her cell-mates include all the other fugitive women from the earlier three narrative threads. They have failed in their efforts to find freedom and are now in prison. Finally, a cell-door window is opened and some officer from outside calls to the women inside asking if Solmaz Gholami is present. Thus we learn that the woman who gave birth to a girl in the opening scene of the film has apparently been abandoned, and she, too, has wound up in prison. The circle has been closed.
The Circle attracted immediate attention on release and won the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, along with numerous other international film awards. The fact that it was banned in Iran brought it to the attention of even more people, and many critics viewed the film through the lens of international politics. Certainly viewers from all societies can identify with the plight of people seeking to move about freely. Paradoxically, though, Panahi, himself, ran into those problems in a society, the US, that boasts of its particular freedoms for individuals: once when changing planes in New York while en route from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, he was detained in shackles for 12 hours because he didn’t want to be fingerprinted. What I would like to discuss further here, though, is not the political issues, but some of this film's special merits as a viewing experience and why I think it qualifies as a work of genius.
Although the film features continuous moving camera shots of people on the city streets, I must again emphasise, as I did in my review of his preceding work, The Mirror, how significantly Panahi’s cinema style differs from the rough-and-ready style of on-the-spot documentary filmmaking. Panahi slyly demonstrated those differences in The Mirror, when he interrupted that film to show the contrast between his own visual narrative style and that of fly-on-the-wall documentarians. In The Circle, again, the shots are carefully composed and structured. This is how Panahi holds our visual attention for a full ninety minutes while we are watching young women wandering, seemingly aimlessly, on the street. Panahi is constantly moving the narrative along, even though one thread is dropped without resolution and another one picked up. There are extraordinarily long tracking shots that smoothly, and without cutting, follow the women around as they gaze at their surroundings, and yet all the while they manage to keep the women in frame and, at the same time, provide point-of-view references concerning what they see. This camera movement is not jarring or confusing, but is instead highly crafted to motivate the viewer's attention. Not only are the women moving about in the early part of the film, but the camera is moving around them, too, and in an artful manner. All of these circular, moving shots perpetuate the metaphor of the movie’s title. Later, there is a three-minute-long tracking shot of the single-mother walking along the street and then getting into and riding along in the unmarked car of the policeman. Throughout this shot, the woman is perfectly in frame in medium close-up. The viewer’s appreciation for this woman’s inconsolable depression builds over the length of this doleful shot, and this would not have been as effective if the shot had been carelessly handled.
Another cinematic feature is the metaphor of confinement and entrapment. Women in this society without the proper identification cannot buy a bus ticket, cannot register at a hotel, and cannot even smoke in public (men are not so restricted). Throughout the film, several of the women protagonists are never able to find a place where they can just catch a moment to smoke a cigarette. Each of the four narratives has a context, a scope, of interactive possibility. But as we proceed, each succeeding narrative is confined to an ever-smaller scope. In the first narrative, Arezou and Nargess are running about on the street and have a relatively wider scope of freedom. In the second narrative, Pari is more confined, but can still range across the city. In the third narrative, the single-mother is only seen walking along the sidewalk. In the final narrative, the prostitute is confined to the dimensions of her seat in the prison bus. This succession of increasing confinement has a cumulative, subconscious effect that makes the dystopian world of the women every bit as ominous and disturbing as Orwell’s 1984. Yet in The Circle we are not in a fantastic or futuristic world with carefully designed sets and artificial environments, but are instead in the here-and-now, and on the street with real, everyday people. In fact only two of the players in The Circle had professional acting experience, and only one of those two, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy (Pari), has a significant role in the film. But all of the actors and actresses come across as realistic individuals.
Panahi’s The Circle is a bravura performance, and when watching it, I get the feeling that I am viewing the exploration of new cinematic narrative structures.