By his calculations, Jafar Panahi and his fellow film-makers in Iran spend 80 per cent of their time involved in negotiations, only 20 per cent actually making films. In the West, we're used to hearing directors complain about the difficulty of raising money or dealing with the idiocy of studios. Such struggles fall into perspective when compared to Panahi and his peers' constant battles with the Ministry of Culture which oversees film production in Iran.
Panahi's last film The Circle was a harrowing essay on the conditions faced daily by Iranian women. Panahi was forbidden to shoot it for nine months, the authorities finally relenting in the face of a press campaign organised by the director and his supporters. Even though he was allowed to make the film, it has still not been shown publicly in Iran.
The troubles have continued with Panahi's new film Crimson Gold, though its subject matter less obviously suggests a critique of the regime. It is the story of a mentally disturbed pizza delivery man who ends up killing himself in a robbery, as seen in the film's mesmerising opening shot. Nevertheless, the film proved contentious with the authorities: Panahi was asked to remove or shorten several sequences, including one where Tehran police arrest partygoers, and even a shot featuring a disparaging reference to a brand of cigarettes, interpreted by censors as a coded slur on the regime.
Barred from showing the film, even privately, Panahi smuggled it to Cannes for its premiere in May, and has twice been arrested and questioned as a result. Nevertheless, Panahi insists, "I never censor myself, I don't make compromises. It's very dangerous - if you censor yourself, it's worse than if the government censors you. Any film-maker who does that thinking they can please the authorities is going against their own interests."
From a western viewpoint, Crimson Gold - scripted by Panahi's one-time employer Abbas Kiarostami - might fit into a recognisable tradition of films about society seen through the eyes of its outsiders. Its largely nocturnal action makes it something of a Tehran Taxi Driver; Panahi says it has been compared to Herzog'sThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser: But the film is also a portrait of Tehran itself - an exploration Panahi began in his 1995 debut, The White Balloon. Like his anti-hero Hussein, Panahi comes from the south of the city, its poorer part. "In Tehran," he says, "uptown and downtown are physically up and down - you go up the mountain to where the upper classes live, and the lower society lives below. The higher you go, you see the changes - the way people act and dress is very different. Whenever Hussein goes where the privileged classes live, I always show his motorcycle going up a slope."
Most Iranian films seen in the West, by the likes of Kiarostami and the Mahkmalbafs, have tended to show either rural situations or urban life at street level, so it comes as a revelation to see the sometimes comic portrayal of Tehran's haute bourgeoisie in Crimson Gold. Among the characters is a spoilt and confused young man who has returned to his parents' insanely opulent apartment after a spell in the States: he is as close as Iranian cinema gets to one of Mike Leigh's social monsters. According to Panahi, domestic audiences would recognise the type instantly. "At the moment we have four to five million Iranians in exile. Some come back and some can't come back - once they get used to the Western way of living, they find it difficult to adapt when they return. That's why they look like outsiders, they're more foreign than foreigners."
Not the least of Panahi's problems on Crimson Gold was the casting of his lead, Hussein Emadeddin, in real life both a pizza vendor and schizophrenic. Panahi says, "I believe for each character there's only one person who can play the role. My job is to find that person." There's no doubt he found an unsettling and moving screen presence in Emaddedin, chosen for "his heaviness, his silence, his mood, his bizarre way of walking." But the relationship was fraught: "Normally, I don't show scripts to actors but I was afraid of him - I showed him the script so he wouldn't have an excuse not to do it. He said he didn't like it but he'd do it anyway." The trouble, Panahi says, started two days into shooting when Emadeddin scuffled with other actors and claimed there were neo-Nazis in the crew. He said they knew he was in telepathic contact with children and were trying to destroy children through him.
Panahi claims that the situation for Iranian film-makers has become more difficult over the last year (this week, in fact, Babak Payami's latest film was scheduled to screen illicitly in Venice, despite being confiscated at home). The authorities, Panahi says, expect directors "to have one colour to their film, to make propaganda films rather than their own work. As soon as they see films that are on the margins, they study it much more." Panahi himself claims he is not a political animal: "Because I don't think along any party's line, I don't intend my films to be a political issue. It doesn't mean that I refuse to think about the political undercurrents of my society, but I don't want the art to be corrupted by politics."
Despite everything, Panahi is confident that committed film-makers will prevail in Iran. "When you live in a society where there are lots of restrictions and you're trapped within a circle, you always have to find a way of expressing yourself that can get you out and expand your radius." His progress, from the gentle miniature of The White Balloon to the subtly ground-breaking Crimson Gold, leaves no doubt that Panahi's radius is expanding artistically. "I'm like a film student," he says, "always looking for a new way to express myself. There's no end to research."
'Crimson Gold' (12A) is out on FridayReuse content