Berlin 2013: 'Closed Curtain' Stirs Debate About Iran

Jafar Panahi - Iranian Film Director - 2010
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The prominence of Jafar Panahi’s competition film is a sign of rising international attention to the plight of Iranian filmmakers.

BERLIN -- While the first half of this year’s Berlinale was dominated by the enigmatic The Grandmaster, the festival’s second half will inevitably be centered around a film even more mysterious: a secretly made piece from a filmmaker currently serving out a 20-year filmmaking ban at home.

With Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain making its bow at the festival tomorrow, details have remained scant not only about the efforts that went into the making of the film – the festival program describes Panahi actually appearing onscreen himself to interact with his two socially ostracized characters – but also about the means by which it was transported to Berlin.  

As Panahi’s co-director and star, Kamboziya Partovi, appears at the Berlinale Palast for the film’s premiere Tuesday night, the plight of Iranian filmmakers – and Iranians in general, in the run-up to presidential elections later this year – will again move center-stage.        

The Berlinale has long been supportive of Panahi, with festival head Dieter Kosslick inviting the Iranian filmmaker to sit on the festival jury in 2011 at the same time as he was arrested and detained at home for making “anti-government propaganda.” At the opening ceremony, German cultural minister Bernd Neumann called on Tehran to lift Panahi’s house arrest and allow him to travel to Berlin.

With Panahi remaining in Iran, Partovi will join competition jury member Shirin Neshat, the U.S.-educated Iranian artist-filmmaker whose work examines the existence of women in fundamentalist societies.

Meanwhile, last month’s International Film Festival in Rotterdam recruited Fatemeh Motamedarya, a veteran actress whom the authorities banned from appearing on stage or screen, as its Hivos Tiger Awards juror; the Dutch event also included a sidebar called Inside Iran, which showcased new Iranian films as well as hosting events looking at the country’s current social and creative conditions.

Of all the artists traveling to festivals worldwide to talk about his country’s problems, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is probably the most prominent. Having spent the past eight years in self-exile – he left at around the time the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005 – the filmmaker has been very vocal in his criticism of the current Iranian regime’s suppression of civil rights and artistic freedom.

Makhmalbaf, whose latest film, The Gardener, was screened in Rotterdam, told The Hollywood Reporter he’s now making a film about Iranian refugees in London, where he and his family are based. His work and his festival appearances are signs of defiance against his opponents, he said, adding: “When I went out of Iran, they said if I went out of the country I wouldn’t be able to do anything. But since then I have made eight films, one film every year."

But Panahi and Makhmalbaf – and also the less overtly political Abbas Kiarostami – are also casting a large shadow on a younger generation seeking to embark on different approaches to filmmaking. While at Rotterdam introducing his film Fat Shaker – which would go on to nab a Tiger award – director Mohammed Sirvani spoke of his need to “fight the patriarchs.”

The schisms in Iran and Iranian cinema are more complicated than a simple clash of reformists against fundamentalists, said Mani Haghighi, whose Modest Reception also screened in Rotterdam. As an artist, he told THR, “I find myself fighting against a cliched image or style predominantly expressed by Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf or Jafar Panahi … We learned a lot from them, but different people express themselves in different ways.”

Haghighi also believes in negotiation rather than confrontation in his exchanges with the government. For Modest Reception, which revolves around what happens when a couple gives money away to strangers in the countryside, he met with cultural officials for nearly 12 hours over three days, discussing every single shot in the film.

“The initial censorship list amounted to 25 minutes of the film; in the end they cut out six seconds, because I talked to them forever. They realized I would never leave, and if they didn’t let me do it my style I would just continue to sit there talking to them. Not everyone has patience like that – most people after two hours start fighting or say rude things to each other.”

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.