PRINT March 2001


The Circle

THE CHADOR IS A STRANGE GARMENT. A square of black fabric draped over a woman's head and falling to her ankles, this ancient covering, currently a symbol of Iran's revolution, has over time served various ideologies. The shah banned it; the mullahs now enforce it. “Death out for a walk” was how Guy de Maupassant described the dark figures he saw moving through nineteenth-century Persian streets.

By most accounts, the chador is difficult to wear—held in place by a hand under the chin and perennially slipping. Though it allows women to mingle publicly with men, it is both physically and psychologically encumbering. In Persian Mirrors, Elaine Sciolino's new book (based on two decades' experience reporting from Iran), the journalist recalls strangers rebuking women for infringements of hijab (proper Islamic dress) with “Fix your hijab, ma'am,” spoken politely or hissed. Women who wear the chador bear (willingly or unwillingly) the full weight of these restrictions; yet their billowing forms seem to float through space.

In effect, the chador (literally, “tent”) traces a cordon sanitaire around a woman's body: It's a portable cloister. Such confined spaces, both real and imaginary, which Iranian women navigate daily, are the subject of Dayereh, or The Circle, Iranian director Jafar Panahi's new film, opening in New York this month and nationally in April. The Circle traces the arc of a woman's life through seven female characters who cross paths, by chance or design, on the Streets of Tehran over the course of a single day. The veil is never altogether lifted from their stories, which are revealed only fitfully and in fragments. Some are fugitives, escaping from prison; all are captives of a culture that denies them both equal protection under the law and the freedom to smoke a cigarette in public. Yet The Circle is no sociological inquiry: While powerfully evoking the determination of Iranian women to overcome the limitations imposed on them, Panahi has also shaped a metaphor for the conditions of art in a repressive society.

The week in which I am writing these words has been a difficult one for freedom of expression in Iran. Under pressure from conservative clerics, President Mohammed Khatami accepted the resignation of his liberal culture minister, Ataollah Mohajerani, signaling an end to government-sanctioned reform. It was the latest blow to an intellectual community still reeling from a string of newspaper closings and assassinations.

The Circle touches on these themes only glancingly, in the quick glimpse it offers of policemen confiscating newspapers at a corner kiosk, and in the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that reigns over its characters' lives. In town for The Circle's screening at the New York Film Festival last September, Panahi chose his words carefully; he was loath to discuss the difficulties he encountered while making his film or to talk about its thwarted distribution. He worked for three years on The Circle, shooting in crowded streets and markets, sometimes without permits, and using a cast made up largely of nonprofessionals. Permission for the film to be screened abroad was granted just three days before the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion (the top award). But despite such international recognition, The Circle has yet to receive an Iranian release.

The film's forty-year-old director grew up with four sisters in a working-class family in Tehran. He studied at Tehran's College of Film and Television before serving as an assistant to director Abbas Kiarostami, who wrote the screen play for The White Balloon (1995), Panahi's first feature and a major international hit of the Iranian New Wave. A simple story about a little girl who sets out to buy a goldfish on the afternoon of Persian New Year's Eve, it's also an allegory about the great divide of gender in Iranian society and the way that women and girls negotiate public spaces, which are almost exclusively controlled by men.

Panahi told me that his new film emerged from reflections on the fate of the little girl in The White Balloon. “I wondered what she would be like when she grew up, and how the process of maturation would affect her ability to pursue her goals,” he said. The Circle begins in a maternity ward, where an old woman greets the news of her granddaughter's birth with trepidation—her in-laws will be furious that the child isn't a boy, and her daughter risks repudiation by a husband who can divorce her at will. The film ends in a prison, a prostitute's final destination. In between, we see a teenage girl traveling alone who must cajole a male cashier into selling her a bus ticket; a woman fleeing the tiny house where she was born, which can barely contain the murderous wrath of her father and brothers; an obedient wife who lies to her husband for fear he might discover that she served time in prison and divorce her; and a despairing single mother who abandons her child in a vain effort to appease her current lover. We glimpse these vivid characters as they surface and disappear like outlaws on the run, without full explanation. Panahi's camera finds women trapped in hospital locker rooms and box offices; it circles around factories, bus stations, and jail cells, reinforcing a sense of impeded lives and social isolation.

More than twenty years after the shah's decadent secularism gave way to the ayatollahs' radical theocracy, Iran remains a culture of extreme contradictions. It supports a flourishing professional class of women while enforcing their ritual veiling and seclusion and has seen one of the world's great cinemas flower amid strict government censorship. The intensity and strength of The Circle's female characters (and of the film itself) rise up in defiance of such limitations.

For Panahi, the pressures brought to bear on his protagonists confine all of society. “The constraints placed on people's lives may be thought of in terms of circles,” the director said. “The circumferences differ according to people's different social situations. But all our struggles to improve our lives are merely efforts to widen the circles-not to escape them.”

Leslie Camhi is a writer and cultural critic based in New York.