The women in The Circle want to have a smoke. All are thwarted until the end, when a woman arrested after travelling in a car with a man who is not her husband is permitted to light up in the prison van.
It’s one of a number of moments in the film, released in 2000, in which a small kindness, or relenting, is shown. The director, Jafar Panahi, has said that he believes that “everyone is a good person”. In a film illustrating the many restrictions on women in his country, Iran, he shows a policeman asking a woman, vomiting as a result of an unwanted pregnancy, if he can help. A shop assistant holds a shirt up to a young soldier’s chest in order to help a young woman, recently released from prison, assess whether it would fit her fiancé. Panahi, who has rejected any suggestion that the film is feminist, asserts that he “never showed any kind of maltreatment or anger from men” in it.
“Iranian society, particularly in comparison to this part of the world, is a man’s world pretty much,” he said in an interview shown, in print, on the Artifical Eye DVD. “The radius might be marginally larger for men.”
Just how much larger can be demonstrated by looking at Iran’s penal code. The testimony of a woman is worth half of that of a man’s. The age of criminal responsibility is set at 15 for boys and 9 for girls. And the diya (blood money) for murdering a woman is half that of a man.
Panahi has said that he was not angry about the situation he depicted in the film. The emotion most powerfully conveyed is fear, rather than rage. In several scenes, women cower behind cars, an undignified, childlike position. Two women recently released from prison watch as another of their number is seized by the police; another observes as a young girl is abandoned by her mother. The fleeing, sneaking and skulking is all performed in the flowing garments of the attire prescribed by the State, making for an ungainly movement.