BERLIN -- Forbidden from making films, Iranian director Jafar Panahi is struggling with the restriction, says his longtime collaborator.
“It’s difficult to work, but not being able to work is even more difficult, and especially at the height of your career,” said Kamboziya Partovi, who co-directed and starred in “Closed Curtain,” Panahi’s new work that premiered Tuesday at the Berlinale.
Panahi remains in Iran, prohibited from traveling or making movies, according to a sentence imposed on him in late 2010 for his involvement in election protests the previous year. But the director has stayed prolific, first making the quasi-documentary “This is Not a Film” and now this movie, a more conventional narrative feature he shot at his beach house outside Tehran.
“Closed Curtain” follows an unnamed writer (Partovi) as he sequesters himself in a seaside bungalow. At the start of the movie he unpacks a prized possession -- a small and affectionate dog. The dog is the one on the run, we learn, declared unclean and sentenced to extermination. So the writer builds an interior life for the two of them, behind locked safety gates, tightly pulled curtains and layers of dark cloth.
Soon a mysterious pair shows up -- a moody young woman (Maryam Moghadam) with a man who might be her brother. They’re on the run from authorities for participating in a beach party. He leaves her to wait with the writer, but she ends up being more ghost than guest in the closed-up house.
“She’s a young woman like many young women -- she’s struggling,” Moghadam told reporters of her character in the film, which is seeking U.S. distribution. “Apart from that, she’s the dark side of his mind. The hopeless power. That part that doesn’t hope anymore and wants to give up.”
Her story is deeply involving, which makes it a bit of a shock when Panahi walks into the frame near the end of the film. The movie then takes on a meta level, as we see Panahi and his crew filming the scenes of Partovi’s writer character.
While “Closed Curtain” leaves audiences without the satisfaction of a narrative ending, it also reminds us of how much is at stake for everyone involved in the making of this film. Indeed, in the film, suicide is discussed often in reference to Moghadam’s character, and both she and Panahi are seen walking into the sea at one point.
Asked by reporters about the director’s own state of mind -- a person who knows him has said he has struggled with depression in the last few years -- Partovi demurred.
“He was not constantly thinking about suicide, no, because then he wouldn’t have been able to make the film. But if I imagine myself unable to work and just sitting at home, then I am sure I would start to think about suicide,” Partovi said. (In his filmmaker’s notes, Panahi says he started the film in a state of deep melancholy, but recovered while shooting.)
Partovi said working has become a means of therapy for the director. “For him, it became very difficult for him to sit around at home, and we talked about it time and time again,” said the actor-filmmaker, who collaborated with Panahi on films such as the feminist-themed pictures “Border Cafe” and “The Circle.” “We asked ourselves, how can we gain new experience in this particular situation? How can we develop something new and have a new experience?”
Panahi is known for his socially relevant films that explore the experiences of the downtrodden. Now he has turned inward. “If he’s no longer allowed to speak about others and others’ lives, he has to speak about himself and his own life,” Partovi said.
In his printed statement, Panahi wrote that “‘Closed Curtain’ uses shifting genres and stories within stories to highlight why filmmaking is a necessity in a filmmaker’s life: it is the imperative need to show the reality of the world we live in.”
A favorite on the international festival circuit, Panahi won a Silver Bear in Berlin for his Iranian soccer drama “Offside” in 2006, and was invited to serve on the Berlinale jury in 2011; unable to attend, his jury chair was left empty.
The German government petitioned the Iranian government that Panahi be allowed to travel to Berlin for the premier of “Closed Curtain.” It was denied, but Panahi was visible in other ways at the festival. Outside the Berlinale’s Palast cinema, a group from the independent Peace Film Prize brought a life-size cutout of Panahi. A sign on it read: “I ought to be here.”