This Is a Film: Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain

The following post contains spoilers.

Arriving by taxi at a secluded villa on the Caspian Sea, an unnamed screenwriter (co-director Kambuzia Partovi) immediately sets about the task of blocking out the outside world in Jafar Panahi and Partovi’s Closed Curtain (Pardé, 2013). After pulling shut the translucent curtains that give the film its title, in a literal sense at least, the male lead covers the large picture windows with a roll of black fabric that he tears by hand. Hidden thus from the prying outside world, the writer proceeds to alter his identity, shaving his thick, silvery mane as he settles into a solitary routine of penning notes and caring for his smuggled canine named Boy.

Throughout this opening set-piece, Closed Curtain echoes its own conditions of production: a film made illicitly, by its co-director and writer Panahi (The Circle, 2000), in his own home, and under the twenty-year filmmaking ban that he famously received in 2010. As was true for the filmmakers during the feature’s production, Partovi’s screenwriter lives a furtive, fugitive existence where everything must be done with an eye towards a persecutory police state. Then again, as a new work of art cinema that debuted at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and will screen twice this week at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (Oct. 4 at 5:30 p.m. and Oct. 5 at 3 p.m.), the absolute opposite is true: Closed Curtain is a first-person testimony of its maker’s illegal activity. It’s an acknowledgement, not simply to Iranian authorities but to the whole world, that yes, Panahi has made a film in defiance of the ban that caused an international scandal less than four years ago.

Of course, Closed Curtain is not the first but the second feature that Panahi has written and directed since 2010. The first, cleverly dubbed This Is Not a Film (2011), after René Magritte’s Treachery of Images (1928-1929), approached the ban from an angle of comic, if still courageous deniability. This Is Not a Film, which screened at the OKCMOA in October 2012, follows the filmmaker as he reads and re-enacts the screenplay that he is unable to make as a result both of the aforementioned ban and also the conditions of house arrest in which he then found himself. Panahi, in other words, explicitly does not make a film in This Is Not a Film, opting instead to discuss the conventional fiction feature that he would have made under other circumstances. Yet, we know that this is a ruse, that the film’s title is a lie and that this intentionally edited, philosophically minded object is no less cinema than anything the great Panahi had produced before his sentence.

Without shedding any of the intellectual complexity of its predecessor, Closed Curtain does return to more conventional narrative territory, at least for the first hour of its 107-minute running time. A brother and sister arrive unwanted, by the cover of night, at the writer’s villa. When the brother suddenly departs, the motives and identity of his female traveling companion are brought into focus. However, it is what happens next that makes Closed Curtain not only a companion to the internationally lauded This Is Not a Film, but in many respects, an advancement on the previous experimental documentary. As the writer and young woman continue to quarrel, Panahi makes his first appearance in the film, stepping into the frame as he completes a task begun by the writer.

With this act, and with his continued presence throughout the remainder of the film, Closed Curtain becomes something more than the story of a man who escapes and hides away with a dog deemed “unclean” by Islamic authorities: this is a film about the making of that fiction, a work that is recognizable first as conventional fiction filmmaking – and then, a film that is revealed to have been made by Panahi, who plays himself here, shooting a film, in secret, in his own home. The self-reflexivity (which is to say, the modernist self-conscious of his art) that Panahi has inherited from his mentor Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, 1997) is here employed not only to shift our understanding of what we’re watching, to make us aware of the vast, unseen off-camera space that is in many ways Panahi’s principle subject (I will say a good deal more about this at the post-screening panel Sunday afternoon); it is a strategy employed to take perilous artistic ownership over his second illegally made feature film.

Yet, Panahi doesn’t leave things here, with a gesture that already makes Closed Curtain his most forceful act of political defiance. Instead, the writer-director utilizes character subjectivity to insist that the plot events that make it to the screen are the product of his own waking and dreaming imagination. This is Panahi’s film – a major masterpiece for the director – from unconscious conception to conclusion; to the moment that the writer-director closes the metal gates on an Iranian landscape that the film’s final image transforms into a limitless national prison.

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