Closed Curtain (2013), Jafar Panahi’s symbolically charged follow-up to his critically acclaimed This Is Not a Film (2012), is about state repression, censorship, depression and the intersection between art and reality. Echoes of the former Soviet Union’s ‘Iron Curtain’ are reflected in the title. The superb opening shot is filmed through the security grill of a window; an image reinforced by the bars of an iron fence directly in front of it. A car draws up. Two men approach the house. All that can be heard is the faint sound of birdsong. The first man, carrying a black bag, enters the house and we hear him set down his bag and keys. He accepts a suitcase and box of water from the second who then drives off.
As the camera’s perspective moves to the interior, the man (co-director Kamboziya Partovi) closes the curtains of the main living space. He uses black fabric, reminiscent of the hijab, to shroud the house in darkness and, it is implied, to escape prying eyes. A dog is in the black bag. Gradually it is revealed that he is a screenwriter holed up in the seaside villa with his pet dog named Boy. In Iran, dogs are considered impure and, except for as working animals, they are effectively banned from being seen in public. Stray dogs are routinely exterminated. One suspects that their inhumane slaughter, shown on the screenwriter’s television and watched by Boy, is also intended as a searing indictment of Iran’s policy of capital punishment. During a thunderstorm a young man and his sister Melika (Maryam Moghadam) seek refuge in the villa. The brother leaves Melika in the safekeeping of the screenwriter, warning him that she is suicidal.
He never returns. The pair circle around each other; she is curious and the screenwriter is wary, anxious that Melika is a spy. Later, thieves break in through the villa’s glass doors and ransack the place. At this point, Panahi, recognisable to aficionados, steps into the frame and the film changes direction. Suddenly, Closed Curtain focuses on the reality for Panahi, an acclaimed auteur who is currently banned from filmmaking in his country and lives under house arrest. The closed curtain represents Iran’s censorship of cinema, its repression of creativity, as well as the state’s control of ordinary lives. The message is clear – Iran is a prison. A reminder of Iran’s previous freedom comes with shots of the seventies style home bar, where now only water is served. Shattered glass is symbolic of the state’s cataclysmic destruction of artistic creativity. Closed Curtain also interrogates questions of identity: where does Panahi belong – in Iran or in exile abroad, where his films are celebrated?
A neighbour suggests that there is more to life than work and Panahi responds “those things are foreign to me.” Melika believes suicide is better than living behind closed curtains. She comes to represent the black cloud of depression that hangs over Panahi. She fills his thoughts and tries to lure him into taking his own life by walking into the sea, suggesting the drowning of himself and his imagination. Cinematographer Mohamed Reza Jahanpanah’s brilliant framing, the use of images on phone cameras, the playing of film backwards and the inventive use of light and shade are impressive. This is an eloquent and memorable film about an authoritarian state’s constraints on artistic expression. Since making the film co-director Partovi and Moghadam have been banned from travelling; for anyone interested in artistic freedoms, Closed Curtain is a must see.