Like many Iranian directors, Jafar Panahi made early films revolving around children navigating the the adult world. The White Balloon, which Panahi made in 1995 after directing documentaries, was about seven-year-old Razieh’s attempt to buy a goldfish in time for the Iranian New Year.

The plot is deceptively simple, like so many Iranian movies about rosy-cheeked and high-voiced children. Razieh is a guileless cutie, the kind you want to give a warm hug and loads of sweets. But in his first feature itself, Panahi was laying the groundwork for the combative cinema that has seen him severely proscribed in his country.

While looking for a misplaced currency note, Razieh visits a neighbourhood of snake charmers. When an elderly woman scolds Razieh for roaming about unsupervised, the child explains that she was never allowed to watch street performances by her father. But one day, she did so on her own anyway: “I wanted to see what was not good for me, what they never let me see.”

The stuff that’s bad for you, which shouldn’t be seen or even shown – this line, written by Panahi’s mentor Abbas Kiarostami for The White Balloon, sums up Panahi’s cinema too, as a retrospective on MUBI proves.

The White Baloon (1995).

The nine-film retrospective has all but one of Panahi’s works, from The White Balloon to his penultimate feature 3 Faces (2018). Four of the films were made after 2010, when the Iranian regime imposed a 20-year ban on Panahi from directing movies or even leaving the country. His most recent production No Bears (which is not a part of the MUBI retrospective) was completed in 2022 after a longstanding order for Panahi’s arrest was finally carried out.

“Panahi was imprisoned despite a ruling by Iran’s Supreme Court in October that quashed a six-year sentence in 2010 for ‘propaganda against the system’,” an Al Jazeera report stated. Panahi was released on bail on February 3, days after he went on a hunger strike to protest his detention.

Jafar Panahi at his home in Tehran after being released on bail in February. Credit Reuters.

Iranian filmmakers face a range of very real threats: their scripts are censored, their films banned, they are debarred from leaving the country to participate in international film festivals. Panahi’s runs-in with the state predate the present-day protests against the draconian restrictions on women. Panahi has responded to attempts to crush him in the only way he knows how to – by making more films.

The MUBI retrospective is an object lesson in the cinema of resistance. Panahi’s films throb with curiosity, anger and social critique about his people as well as his government. His refusal to play by the rules is expressed through guerrilla-style filmmaking, which includes tackling difficult subjects, working often with untrained actors, and shooting without permission on available locations.

Many of the films have itinerant characters embroiled in futile quests or Sisyphean struggles. They dart from one place to the next in search of a person or an object. They often face staggering intransigence, but they never stop trying or fighting, like ants sniping away at elephants.

Despite their dark subject matter, the films are lively, provocative and often wryly funny. They hold up a mirror to the complexities of Iranian society – which is also the title of Panahi’s second feature from 1997. It features another adorable child, played by the younger sister of the girl from The White Balloon.

The Mirror (1997).

When Mina’s mother fails to pick her up from school, she decides to go home by herself. Up until a point, The Mirror is yet another chronicle of a child on a risky expedition that invites our concern.

That is until Mina looks into the camera and declares that she is tired of acting, fed up with pretending that she doesn’t know the way home. She is now going to do as she pleases. All Panahi and his crew can do is follow her through dense traffic as she takes off.

It is never clear whether Mina is continuing to perform or has thrown a tantrum that has been stretched out to make it appear that the film has shifted to documentary mode. The intentionally slippery line between what is staged and what is unscripted took The Mirror away from Iranian-child-in-peril films as well as set the stage for Panahi’s future projects.

Each of them dialled up the risk a few notches. The Circle (2000) has female characters seen outside the confines of their homes and in places where they shouldn’t be.

As three female fugitives move through Tehran trying to evade being re-captured, they are constantly reminded that they cannot function with male permission. And yet, they persist, ducking and diving scrutiny, pleading and cajoling their way into spaces dominated by men.

The Circle (2000).

The Persian title Dayereh, which means limit, gives a better sense of the film’s themes. One of its enduring images is of a sex worker watching one of the women flee the police with a conspiratorial smile on her face.

Crimson Gold (2003) addresses the lingering effects of Iran’s war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Through a jewellery heist carried out by a pizza delivery man, Panahi brutally reveals the class divide in Tehran, the unhealed scars of war, and the failed promises of the Iranian Revolution.

In one of his most-loved films Offside (2006), a group of young football fans tries to catch a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. The fans are young women, who are forbidden from entering football stadiums.

Panahi shot much of Offside on the sly. His own talent for ducking and diving would be sorely needed after 2010, when he was banned from direction following his participation in various public protests.

Panahi’s audacious response was This is Not a Film. Famously smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake, the documentary was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. It’s a singular examination of a director’s frustration at being debarred from doing the one thing he loves the most as well as his defiance.

Co-directed with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, This is Not a Film shows Panahi under house arrest in his apartment in Tehran. Alongside phone conversations about his judicial appeal, Panahi discusses his older works and rehearses the script of a film he hopes to make. His pet iguana Igi slithers about in search of treats and back rubs.

This is Not a Film (2011).

Among the post-ban films available on MUBI – Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi Tehran (2015) and Three Faces (2018) – Taxi Tehran is the most playful. Panahi, posing as a taxi driver, weaves dexterously between documentary and fiction. His various fares through the course of a day include a film pirate, his precocious niece, and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh.

Panahi’s conversation with Sotoudeh yields the film’s most immortal line, spoken by Sotoudeh: “This is for the people of cinema because the people of cinema can be relied upon.” She later jokingly requests him to excise her words, in case he is accused of “sordid realism”. The credits for Taxi Tehran contain dotted lines, for all the people who helped the production but cannot be named.

Cinema can’t change the world, Panahi suggests in his most despairing film No Bears. Yet, the 62-year-old director continues to embody the paradox of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

So many of the journeys in Panahi’s movies feel like endurance tests that are undertaken even though they might lead nowhere or come full circle, as happens in The Circle. The effort itself is the reward, a necessary act in the service of art, an unavoidable duty of filmmakers working in repressive conditions, Panahi has shown despite considerable risk to himself and his family.

Crimson Gold (2003).

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