We might be chafing at the stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 crisis, but Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi has for years endured a similar but far graver confinement and made the most of it.
In 2010 an Iranian court punished his outspokenness with a six-year prison term, later reduced to house arrest, plus a 20-year ban on making movies. Since then he has covertly made and distributed four features, three of which are available for streaming in the Criterion Channel’s program “Three by Jafar Panahi.”
His first, the ironically titled “This Is Not a Film” (2011), shot entirely in his apartment, is a film about a filmmaker who is not allowed to make a film made by a filmmaker not allowed to make a film. In it Panahi describes and acts out a script he has written about a girl who is locked up by her parents. Everyday events intervene — he takes phone calls, he talks to his pet iguana, and the janitor drops by to pick up his trash and tells him the story of his life. Sounds mundane, perhaps, but is in fact a brilliant subversion not just of his imprisonment but also of nonfiction filmmaking.
Panahi stretches the rules a bit in “Taxi” (2015). Posing as a cab driver, he tools around Tehran picking up passengers and engaging in often-comic and sometimes self-reflexive interactions, which are shot by dashcam. A guy selling black-market DVDs claims he contributes to culture as much as Panahi does by providing people with forbidden DVDs such as Panahi’s own. Two old women with a fishbowl are an allusion to Panahi’s “The White Balloon” (1995). He picks up his precocious, aspiring filmmaker niece who threatens to exit the film like the girl in “The Mirror” (1997). But the games get serious when his lawyer climbs into the cab and tells him about her new client, a young woman who tried to sneak into a soccer game (banned for women in Iran) like the heroine in Panahi’s “Offside” (2006). But this girl is in prison for real and has gone on a hunger strike.
Panahi escapes Tehran altogether in “3 Faces” (2018) but cannot escape the “bigger cell of the outside” world as his lawyer in “Taxi” puts it. He and an actress friend drive to a remote village to investigate the fate of a young girl who sent them a video of her supposed suicide. Was the video a fake? Is the film about their search for the truth a fabrication? What is undoubtedly real is the society Panahi exposes, in which a filmmaker can be banned for telling the truth and a woman is oppressed because of her gender.
In the abstract
Lost in art historical obscurity until recently, the reclusive Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) achieved in her luminous and intricate abstract paintings a glimpse into a transcendent reality much as William Blake did with his engravings and poetry. The staggering beauty of her work can be seen in Halina Dyrschka’s “Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint,” which also points out that beginning in 1906, before Wassily Kandinsky had created the first abstract canvas, in 1911 as he had claimed, Klint had already begun her series of such paintings, passing beyond the figurative works she had mastered into a new realm of artistic perception and expression.
The sources for her inspiration ranged from Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, but her work is unique and ineffable. Intriguingly Dyrshcka compares examples of Klint’s work to similar paintings by such giants of modern art as Klee, Mondrian, and even Warhol, and traces possible lines of influence, suggesting that once again men are taking credit for a woman’s accomplishment.
“Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.
The music goes round and round
What more appropriate way of spending time at home during the COVID-19 lockdown than watching a film streamed by a canceled film festival that is about a store going out of business? One of New England’s top documentary events, the Salem Film Fest, which had been scheduled to take place March 20-29 and has gone on indefinite hiatus, has, like many similar screening events, taken to the Internet. Its first virtual offering (originally scheduled for a fest screening on March 28) is “Other Music” (2019), Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller’s documentary about the last days of the New York City CD and record store of that name.
An invaluable cultural resource where the super-savvy if sometimes supercilious staff could satisfy requests such as “I’m looking for someone who sounds like Lou Reed but I’ve never heard of them,” Other Music helped nurture the city’s alternative music scene, providing early support and exposure for musicians like Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective, Interpol, Yo La Tengo, and TV on the Radio. The store and its later online annex served hip music-lovers across the city and around the world, including celebrities like Benicio Del Toro, Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, and the late Lou Reed himself. But rising rents and the inexorable tide of cultural homogenization and digital distribution did them in, leaving a world deprived of the tangible pleasure of vinyl and discs, where algorithms take the place of human expertise in determining the soundtracks of our lives.
“Other Music” can be streamed at salemfilmfest.com/2020/movies/other-music as well as a Q&A with the filmmakers moderated by Salem Film Fest program director Jeff Schmidt.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.