Half-Told Tales
by Chris Wisniewski

Closed Curtain
Dir. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Iran, Variance Films

To what extent is it useful or necessary to speak of Jafar Panahi as a political filmmaker? Admittedly, the question itself rings somewhat false, its answer obvious. Convicted of conspiring against the Islamic Republic of Iran toward the end of 2010, Panahi was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and a twenty-year ban against making movies was imposed on him—thus insofar as he remains, in 2014, a filmmaker at all, he is a political one. The releases of This Is Not a Film in 2011 and, now, Closed Curtain, which Panahi codirected with Kambuzia Partovi (with whom he previously collaborated on The Circle), therefore demand to be seen as political acts. Political resistance is a condition of their existence, a fact both films make fairly explicit.

Where This Is Not a Film played as an overt act of defiance, putting the filmmaker and his legal troubles front and center, Closed Curtain moves into more ambiguous and oblique territory. Both a companion piece to This Is Not a Film and a cinematic break from it, Closed Curtain at first seems to mark a return to “fiction” filmmaking for Panahi—to whatever extent categories like “fiction” and “nonfiction” even apply to his cinematic practice—and so it also invites a certain recalibration. The frame of “political filmmaking” can confer a certain level of engagement, urgency, and importance, but it can also become constrictively narrow. If Closed Curtain announces itself less as political statement than as art cinema, it feels initially like a welcome course correct from its brilliant but dispiriting predecessor, one that puts Panahi squarely in the bucket of “international auteur” rather than that of “political cause.”

The movie opens, and closes, with a bravura static, long take, from inside the gate of a house, looking out to a street and, beyond, to a beach and body of water. Though the association seems unintended, these opening and closing shots reminded me a bit of the ones that begin and end Michael Haneke’s Caché. All four sequences use duration to interrogate the nature of surveillance, point-of-view, and knowledge and how those are instantiated cinematically. Similarly, Closed Curtain contains an extraordinary shot, about two thirds of the way through, of a person walking into the water and disappearing under the surface, seemingly having drowned. For some viewers, the image might evoke the similarly harrowing murder by drowning in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. The point here is not to make labored connections amongst movies that ultimately have little in common, but rather to draw out the level of visual sophistication and ambition on display in Panahi and Partovi’s filmmaking. Closed Curtain is too rich and too accomplished to be seen purely as political agitprop. Of course, for Panahi and Partovi, as for Haneke and Guiraudie, questions of camera placement, point-of-view, mise-en-scène, and duration are political but never simply or obviously so and certainly never in a way that translates easily into written or spoken language.

Indeed, Closed Curtain elides language almost completely for its opening 20 or so minutes. A man, referred to only as the “writer” (Partovi) enters the beach villa where the entirety of the film takes place. He blocks his windows out with heavy makeshift curtains that prevent any light from penetrating the refuge he’s fashioned. A television report provides the necessary exposition: a religious prohibition against dogs has been issued in the Islamic Republic, leading to mass canine executions. It becomes clear that the beach house is a sanctuary for the writer’s dog, named Boy, whom the writer has smuggled into the home. A fugitive of some kind, the writer shaves his head, creates a litter box for the dog, and plays fetch with Boy using a tennis ball. One could read this conceit as a metaphor for Panahi’s house arrest, but as it unfolds, this particular allegory doesn’t need to have a direct real-world referent. In the fifteen years prior to his house arrest, Panahi had built his reputation on films that examined life in the Islamic Republic through the experiences of people excluded from power—women, children, and the poor. The writer’s story plays as a continuation of this exploration, until it is further complicated.

The writer and Boy are soon interrupted by another set of fugitives, a brother (Hadi Saeedi) and sister (Maryam Moqadam), who break into the home. The brother leaves to seek help, asking the writer to look after his sister Melika, whom he claims is suicidal. Panahi and Partovi thus establish dueling/mirrored narratives of political fugitives thrown together by circumstance, each representing a threat to the other, only to then collapse and subvert these half-told stories. The house arrest of the writer/dog and that of Melika are mirrored again, in a sequence that dissolves, complicates, and confuses the barrier between fiction and reality—an episode staged in a landing decorated, rather pointedly, with posters of Panahi’s previous movies The Circle, The White Balloon, and The Mirror. Here, Panahi appears prominently in the frame for the first time, and the original fictional stories Closed Curtain teases come, much as the schoolgirl-on-her-way-home story of The Mirror does, to an unresolved end. Its cinematic illusion shattered, the movie abruptly shifts modes.

Once Panahi makes himself visible as the man behind the curtain, so to speak, the film becomes about its own impossibility—the fact that Panahi is, by law, unable to make movies; the reality that this movie “should not” exist. Closed Curtain doubles back on itself, revisiting previously staged scenes and introducing new characters as Melika and the writer (again, portrayed here by the film’s other director) comment upon their fictional reality and Panahi’s “real” one. Melika and the writer might function as aspects of Panahi’s personality or as representations of the return of the repressed, but such interpretations hinge on prioritizing the Panahi side of the narrative over and above the half of the movie that precedes it. It would be just as easy, and more balanced, to see the movie as layering Panahi’s own tale of repression, which may or may not be fictionalized, on top of and next to the writer’s and Melika’s. In the spaces between these competing stories, Partovi and Panahi mine tensions between safety and danger, between creative expression and the impulse toward destruction or surrender, and between fear and resistance. That the result is a film that is deeply personal and, in its honesty and intimacy, profoundly sad, is not surprising, but this effect should not be confused with solipsism or self-centeredness.

If This Is Not a Film served as a moving image portrait of the artist as prisoner, Closed Curtain functions, by contrast, as a portrait by the artist in his prison. The former suggested that it would not be possible for Panahi to make a movie in his current state of confinement. The claim was not simply practical or legal but existential; to be an artist in the way he aspires to be in his current circumstance, the movie argued, is not possible. Freedom is a prerequisite for the creative expression Panahi craves. Closed Curtain, in its deliberate irresolvability, may confirm the bleak argument made in This Is Not a Film. Panahi may not have the freedom to make the movies he’d like to be directing, but whatever he’s doing (working with collaborators under considerable constraints), the result is, at turns, confounding, challenging, and extraordinary. It might be more of a film than This Is Not a Film, and it is certainly, like Panahi’s previous effort, an assured and powerful piece of filmmaking.