The Circle (aka Dayereh) – The Many Faces of Female Oppression
The recent execution of Iranian woman Reyhanneh Jabbari and the reason behind her execution brought worldwide condemnation on the Iranian regime. Jabbari crime was killing the man who tried to rape her. The man killed was Morteza Abolali Sarbanda, a member of Iran’s Ministry pf Intelligence and security. She was charged with the crime in the year 2007, at the age of 19. For all these years, she was kept in a solitary cell and was repeatedly tortured and beaten. The lamentable demise of Jabbari reminded me of an Iranian human drama, “The Circle” (aka Dayereh, 2001) which boldly showcased the discrimination against woman by the country’s institutionalized patriarchy.
“The Circle” directed by Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon”, Crimson Gold”) won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, although it was immediately banned in Iran. The movie was shot with a skilled simplicity and follows the lives of seven women, who according to Iranian regime have crossed the law. The movie opens in a brightly lit hospital room and ends in a dark prison cell, and in those both circumstances we see women in a condemned state. In the hospital, an old lady asks the nurse in a maternity ward about the gender of her daughter’s new-born baby.
The nurse says, “A beautiful girl” and the old lady in a grief-stricken voice mumbles, “My poor daughter, she will be divorced”. The old lady asks her relative to pass this information and when this relative gets out to the street, the camera jumps to catch on the perplexed faces of three young girls. These girls, aged around 20, have been recently released from the prison on a temporary pass. From their conversation, we can guess that they are trying to escape the city. We don’t know why they were jailed. Before getting to fully know the plight of these girls, the narrative jumps to another woman on street, and then passes on as a sense of abandonment piles up.
Like many Iranian movies, “The Circle” takes the realist road, using non-professional actors and direct sounds. Director Panahi takes an extreme case of women who have been in prison, and shows how his society’s legal system goes way out of line to punish women. The women’s crime are left ambiguous, not to provide a dramatic effect, but to indict Iran or any erratic patriarchal society as a thoughtless prosecutor. Although the movie has the settings of a documentary, Panahi perfectly establishes the characters in a dramatic context.
When the narration urgently jumps from one woman to other, we are left worrying about the one we left. Panahi uses ‘circle’ as a metaphor as well as in literal representation. You might feel that the narrative is going in the form of point A to B to C etc, but in the last scene, which happens in a prison cell, we know that these women have only traveled in circles. The circle perfectly closes on as the prison guard mentions the name ‘Solmaz Gholami’ – the same woman who gave birth to a baby girl in the first hospital scene (her crime is also left ambiguous). Metaphorically, Panahi alludes that his country or any other male dominated society is a prison for woman, where the socio-politics would only make them go round and round.
Everything the women do in this movie is dependent on the permission of men. Although the movie is set in Iran, this attitude isn’t unique to this particular culture. Women all over the world could identify with the desire of these characters, who all want to break the prescribed roles given to them. Even in the stark setting, you could see director Panahi using a running joke, where many women characters place a cigarette in their mouth, but different circumstance wouldn’t allow them to peacefully have a smoke. The movie s an indictment on oppression faced by woman, but it doesn’t demonize every male characters present in the film. Very few make a crude remark on woman and most of them seem to be kind, but as the director showcases, the problem is not the individuals; it’s the entire system. The system that says, women shouldn’t travel alone; the system which feels that a woman’s each and every action must be monitored.
“The Circle” (88 minutes) is a brave and devastating piece of cinema. It is a testament to the true excellence of low-budgeted Iranian movies.