I am not going to pretend I had an easy time comprehending Closed Curtain. From reading other reviews of the film, it appears that one’s appreciation of Closed Curtain is somewhat predicated on their knowledge of the film’s director, Jafar Panahi, and his previous works. Likely everyone with an interest in Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi, or Iranian cinema in general, knows the general outline of the man’s story thus far; with his roots in social realist cinema that dealt with the problems of Iranian society head-on, Panahi was arrested in 2010 for “making propaganda against the system” and sentenced to 6 years in prison and a 20-year ban from filmmaking. Though he is yet to go to prison, he has spent the last 5 years under house arrest, during which he has made three films in spite of his ban; This is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), and Taxi (2015).
To my shame, of Panahi’s other films I have as yet only managed to watch Offside (2006), his last pre-ban film, about a group of girls who are caught trying to sneak into a football stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain (women are banned from attending football games in Iran). It is a smart, excellent little film, with convincing performances and an emphatic cinematic eye.
Closed Curtain however, is significantly more esoteric from the off. First we see a man, played by Kambuzia Partovi, enter an empty villa by the sea. He blacks out all the curtains and opens his bag to reveal a dog – which we learn is apparently banned by the Islamic authorities in Iran. He spends his days writing and enjoying his little friend’s company, isolated and forgotten by the rest of the world. One day, a couple show up inside his house soaking-wet and on the run from the police. The man runs away to find a car, and the woman, Melika (Maryam Moqadam) is left with our writer despite his protestations. Her presence an unwelcome intrusion into his idyll, she also appears to have a unique habit of disappearing and reappearing at will. Around halfway through the film, she begins to rip down all the curtains, leaving broad daylight to penetrate into the house. During this scene, Jafar Panahi himself suddenly walks into frame, and we realise that the woman and the writer seem to be somewhat imaginary. As the film continues, it settles into something more like a daily account of Panahi’s imprisonment, and only he himself appears to be able to see them, though he does not react to them. Confused? I know I was.
I’m not entirely sure what I watched, but I feel Closed Curtain is a meditation on Panahi’s ability to create, and what he feels are his own responsibilities as an artist and filmmaker. Due to his house arrest, it is now difficult for Panahi to be able to portray Iranian society with as much clarity as he used to, as evidenced in a line in Closed Curtain where Melika sneers at the writer; “a man, a dog, a villa…you think you can capture reality, especially in here?”
Such a line hits at one of the very fundamental problems of realist and documentarian filmmaking, indeed from even before that with photography, literature, and art. After all, how does a filmmaker concerned with social problems and the reality of everyday life and struggle, a filmmaker like Jafar Panahi, attempt to capture the world as it is? In Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, one character claims that “film is truth 24 times a second,” but I have always preferred Michael Haneke’s maxim that “film is 24 lies a second in the service of truth”. As soon as you begin filming, writing, editing, making choices about framing, lighting, movements, you begin to chip away at the veneer of reality.
This is perhaps the core of what Closed Curtain is about. It is about Panahi’s frustration at his incarceration, and how it has stopped him from working at what he does best: creating films that discuss social issues amongst the people of Iran. The writer and the woman are two figments of his imagination, two characters for different films that may never be filmed, locked forever in his house. Their separate storylines interweave and intermingle, as if the films in which they were supposed to star have melded together.
At the same time, Panahi uses the film to discuss the impossibility of ever truly filming reality; the film frequently breaks the fourth wall throughout, and we see the mechanics of filmmaking being peeled back. One early scene shows the writer recording himself on a smartphone, trying to retrace his steps in the moments before the troublesome couple snuck into the house – we see him filming himself from the perspective of a ‘normal’ film camera – and later, we see the same scene played back, but this time from the smartphone’s perspective, and hey presto! The camera crew intrudes in the shot, as if the scene has reversed upon itself in a manner that immediately brings to mind the works of Panahi’s mentor, the great Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami.
I suspect there are many allegories here, allegories I may not understand. The idea of blacking out the curtains feels multi-layered. My ham-fisted guess would be that the dog is a metaphor for Panahi’s own dissent against the government via his camera: a forbidden object with which he has to hide himself away to be able to use. Alternatively, it could be an allegory for the Iranian government itself, enacting harsh, authoritarian rules on its populace, imprisoning itself in religious ignorance and intolerance, and blacking itself out from the world. The intrusion of the outside world upon this kick-starts the breakdown of such a constructed reality.
Closed Curtain has mulled around in my head since I saw it. Almost certainly I will return to it at some time in the future after having watched further films by Panahi. I feel as if this is a film where my issues with it are more a result of my own failures than the film’s, for I sense this is a deep, intriguing, fascinating film that will reward further watches. More than anything I am impressed at Panahi’s resilience – despite the film’s melancholic mood, where Panahi occasionally seems to admit that his ban has very nearly broken his faculties as a filmmaker – he has made not one, not two, but three films since his ban. Furthermore Closed Curtain displays a brilliant eye for working under restrictions. Despite the low budget, the technical limitations, and most especially the legal limitations, Panahi has constructed not just an interesting film thematically, but a visually engaging one too; long takes slowly shift around the characters and find themselves in front of mirrors that only further increases the film’s overwhelming sense of a false, confusing, constructed and Kafka-esque reality.
Jafar Panahi bears the mark of a true filmmaker, a true artist. A false one gives up or retires, content to live off the glory days. A real one never stops working until he or she physically cannot do it anymore, be it through death or illness. I can’t claim to fully understand Closed Curtain, but I certainly admire the film and its director.