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In Jafar Panahi’s third feature-length film, The Circle, a roundabout succession of female characters illustrates the circumscribed existence of women in today’s Iran. As an Iranian man, Panahi has freedoms undreamed of by his female contemporaries, but he’s hardly free of social constraints. The Circle cannot be shown in Iran, and in the United States, the director was recently shackled to a wooden bench by INS officers.

On April 15, six weeks after he visited Washington to discuss his new movie, Panahi arrived at New York’s Kennedy Airport en route from a film festival in Hong Kong to another in Buenos Aires. According to The Circle’s American distributor, WinStar, Panahi had been informed by United Airlines that he wouldn’t need a transit visa to switch planes in New York. The INS disagreed, detaining the filmmaker and ultimately sending him back to Hong Kong rather than allowing him to continue to Argentina. Perhaps the agents were peeved by Panahi’s refusal to be fingerprinted and photographed—INS standard treatment of all Iranians who arrive in the United States. “Freedom entails rebelling against any policy that hinders freedom anywhere,” he told the Village Voice after returning to Tehran.

Compared with his recent experiences, Panahi’s difficulties in making The Circle might seem relatively minor. “The normal procedure in Iran is to give your idea, in the form of an outline or synopsis, to the censor board,” he explains through a translator. “When I gave them my idea, they reacted to it very violently, and they didn’t give me a permit to start shooting.”

Panahi received public support from the independent newspapers that were then thriving. After about nine months, the censors agreed to let The Circle proceed, but with one condition: “When I finished, I have to take it to them again to see if they can give me a screening permit. Then they didn’t give me the permit. But their reaction provoked those same independent newspapers to come to my defense again. We are still trying to get them to allow the film to be shown. I have a lot of support from the press, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

The Circle has been shown in Iran only twice. The first time was a supposedly secret screening for students; 25 were invited, but 400 showed up. The second was limited to subscribers of a film magazine. A screening was also proposed for Iran’s major international film showcase, the Fajr Film Festival. “The festival had decided to show my film out of competition, in one of the side sections,” says Panahi. “This is the Iranian government’s way of dealing with the movies they deem to be difficult. They show it once in a festival, so no one can say they banned the film. And then never show it again. So I said, ‘I’ll let you show the film only on the condition that you give me the public permit for screening the film.’ And they declined.”

The censors suggested that the movie might be releasable without its final 18 minutes. “They never give you a reason,” Panahi says. “I think they wanted to hurt the film, because it’s very obvious that you need those last 18 minutes to bring the whole thing back to the full circle. They thought this way they can break that circle, and the movie wouldn’t have the same impact.”

The censors did mention one thing that bothered them about the film’s later scenes: the depiction of prostitution in Tehran. “In no Iranian film made after the revolution do you have the presence of a prostitute character so clearly,” the director acknowledges.

Panahi seems fairly sanguine about his film’s current status in Iran, but when queried, he concedes that one source of support for his work is dwindling. “The newspapers that have more of an artistic and cultural orientation support me. But the number of those kinds of newspapers is decreasing. Twenty of them were closed down, but there are still a few.”

The rise of such independent newspapers is one tentative sign of openness in Iranian society. Another is the government film-financing mechanism, which operates independently of the censors. “That’s the way films are being made in Iran right now; most of them use a government-supported bank loan,” notes Panahi, who also received funding from an Italian company for The Circle. “That bank loan is almost an entitlement.”

Films are given letter grades that determine how they will be released, with “A” films getting the most prominent venues. “If they rate the project an ‘A’ film, you get more money. If it’s ‘B’-rated, it’s less money. But everyone can apply for that loan and get it.

“The Iranian government is not monolithic,” the director adds. “The people who censor your films are not the ones who give you money. The analogy you can use is, when you’re trying to build a house, you can go to the bank and ask for a loan, but at the same time you have to deal with the municipality to get the right permits.”

The situation is almost the opposite in the United States, where artistic freedom is a given but money is frequently an obstacle. “Every country has its own unique problems,” Panahi says. “In this country, the finances may present a hurdle that is similar to a sort of censorship. In Iran, money is not really a big problem, because all our movies are low-budget. You don’t have to have huge amounts of money to make a film. What filmmakers are concerned with is finding ways to express themselves. One way or another, they manage to do it.”

Panahi managed to do it at first in a traditional way, making his debut feature with the patronage of an established director, Abbas Kiarostami, and using a subject common in recent Iranian cinema: the tiny travails of a plucky child. The director’s The White Balloon bent the rules, however, by taking a girl as its central character.

“It was a requirement of the content of the film,” he says. “There was such gentleness and such innocence about the child’s character in that film that I felt it had to be a girl. Also, I have a daughter myself, and I’ve always noticed that innocence and a much gentler outlook distinguishes her from the boys.”

Panahi’s second film, The Mirror, began in a similar mode, but then took a Brechtian U-turn. “I did that very consciously,” he says. “It was a point of departure for me, as well. In the first half, you see me continuing the storytelling tradition of The White Balloon. In the middle of that film, I depart from that. The change that takes place in the middle of that film finds its evolved form in The Circle.”

The crucial change, however, is that Panahi’s latest film focuses on adult women, a rare and problematic (though not unprecedented) subject for recent Iranian cinema. “Both of my previous films are about small girls. When thinking about those characters, I would always think about what would happen when they grow up,” the director says. “Would they be as stubborn about what they want as they are as little children? Can they implement their wills once they grow up? So the characters in The Circle are those little girls grown up and trying to find something. But the world of adults is not as gentle and as forgiving as the world of children.”

All three movies take place largely on the street. The Circle’s elegant long takes are carefully choreographed, but the movie shares the documentary feel of many recent Iranian films. “To some extent, it has to do with censorship codes,” Panahi explains. “When you enter a house and show a husband and wife interacting, you still have to have the wife covering her hair. And that’s not real. Inside any Iranian house, when you have a husband and wife, the wife is not going to cover her hair.

“It’s difficult for me to show something as unreal as that,” he continues. “That’s why we avoid indoor scenes and try to stay in the streets. In public spaces, there is a sense of reality.” The ban on The Circle suggests that Iran’s censors found that sense all too credible. —Mark Jenkins