Last month I was taken aback by an E-mail from a colleague that said, “I thought, as an apparent defender of the Islamic Republic of Iran, that you should read this.” Before I accessed the link—an AP story about a woman stoned to death by court order for appearing in porn movies—I wrote back to say I was insulted by the implication that my regarding Iranians as human beings meant I supported a totalitarian regime. He promptly sent back an apology, but added, “It’s just that sometimes it sounds as if you regard their regime as ‘better’ than ours. Perhaps I’m misreading you.”

His second E-mail upset me even more than the first. The first could be rationalized as a sick joke—reminding me of being called a “nigger lover” when I was an Alabama teenager (an epithet sometimes followed by “Just kidding!”)—but the personal pronouns of the second revealed a blood-chilling us-versus-them mentality. That kind of either-or thinking is surely the most primitive as well as the most dangerous of cold war legacies, and it only reinforces this country’s isolationism.

This probably sounds like an excessive response, but his words haunted me for the rest of the week. They suggested that my colleague and I—along with Timothy McVeigh, Janet Reno, Jeffrey Dahmer—shared something irreducible in terms of our identities that couldn’t be superseded by anything I had in common with anyone else in the world. They implied that even though I had no choice about being born an American, a white male, a Jew, or a southerner, I was still a member of a club to which others need not apply.

And what did my colleague mean by “their” regime anyway? Did he honestly think the woman who got stoned to death could claim it as hers? I wouldn’t dream of insulting the Iranians I know by identifying them with the oppression they all have to cope with, just as I hope they wouldn’t slime me by insinuating that George W. Bush is “my” leader. It isn’t “we” who are breaking international treaties and wasting our planet for coin, but that twerp—whom I and most other Americans didn’t vote for. One reason I like remaining an American is that there aren’t laws here obliging me to take the blame or the credit for—or even acknowledge the existence of—someone like Bush.

I’ve been in Iran only once—last February, to serve on a film-festival jury—and I was treated with a great deal of warmth and hospitality by people I didn’t regard as dictatorial, though my hosts and I were still subject to totalitarian laws. In Iran it’s illegal, for example, for men and women who aren’t married to touch one another in public, even to shake hands. This doesn’t mean they don’t touch one another in private; the parties I attended in people’s homes were pretty relaxed. But it does mean that I can’t tell you everything I saw or heard in Iran without getting friends into trouble—and it means that by saying even that much I’m giving the false impression that I’m lewdly winking about something. One of the big problems with totalitarian societies is that they muck up everyone’s communication. During the single afternoon I spent in East Berlin before the wall came down, the most disturbing aspect of the bars and cafes I visited was how deadly quiet they all were, with voices seldom rising much above whispers.

This wasn’t the case in the Iranian cafes and restaurants I visited—there are no Iranian bars—but at times in public places people clearly had to worry about being observed. Filmmaker Bela Tarr, a fellow juror in Tehran, told me the city reminded him of Budapest when he was a child in the 60s. It’s part of the singularity of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle—and indicative of the courage and perceptiveness of the man who made it—that this is almost certainly the first Iranian movie to depict this everyday fear and make it part of an overall emotional texture. The film, an Italian coproduction that won the Golden Lion in Venice last summer, represents a quantum leap beyond The White Balloon and The Mirror—his previous two features, both relatively lighthearted films about little girls—though it also makes me want to see those pictures again, because it clearly has stylistic as well as thematic links with them. All three features, for instance, present unescorted females on the streets of Tehran, and all three play with notions of real time. But it’s only with The Circle that Panahi fully reveals himself as a master filmmaker.

Panahi is perhaps the most talented of Abbas Kiarostami’s disciples (he worked as an assistant on Through the Olive Trees and got Kiarostami to write the story of The White Balloon). He uses the same kind of narrative ellipsis and deliberate formal construction that Kiarostami’s famous for, though he goes well beyond his mentor by giving them a political thrust. Moreover, as an Iranian friend, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, has aptly noted, The Circle has all the women that have been missing from Kiarostami’s films, at least through Taste of Cherry. Formal and political radicalism are often seen as being at loggerheads, but Panahi shows how they can work together—a sizable achievement.

As one example of what I mean, some of the central women characters in the film are fresh out of prison, but we never find out why any of them went to jail in the first place, and in some cases we don’t learn whether they escaped, got out on parole, or simply reached the end of their sentences. Yet we gradually realize that none of this information matters and that our lack of certainty about these details even adds an edge to the storytelling.

This edge qualifies as an ideological inflection once we realize that this movie refuses to let us rationalize the way these women are treated by their society. They are all mixtures of strengths and weaknesses—the film has no villains or heroes—but it’s obvious from the outset that what they have to put up with is intolerable, and Panahi refuses to allow us to say at any point, for any reason, that any of them is “getting what she deserves.” As with Kiarostami, the narrative gaps constitute a form of respect for the viewer, but here the respect is not merely for the audience’s imagination but also for its sense of decency and ethics. It’s a sensitivity we in the audience share with Panahi—something we can call “ours” collectively, not “ours” as distinct from “that Iranian’s.”

The point at which The Circle really kicks in for me is when a teenage character named Nargess keeps trying and failing to board a bus that would take her back to her hometown. We know she wants desperately to go, but something keeps preventing her. Panahi and Nargess Mamizadeh, the wonderfully expressive and spontaneous nonprofessional playing the part, create a virtual symphony out of all the things we do and don’t know about her, which adroitly dovetail with all the things she does and doesn’t know and with the schedules of various buses. Like the wedding party that keeps comically reentering the movie, her character is both consistent and unpredictable, and her disorientation as she wanders about the bus terminal soon becomes ours. She has a large bruise under her right eye, though we never learn its cause. She’s convinced that a reproduction of a van Gogh landscape she sees on the street depicts her hometown—she believes the painter simply forgot to include certain details. Her older pal Arezou (Maryam Parvin Almani), whose name means “hope,” may have turned a trick to raise money for the bus fare, though that’s never confirmed; we aren’t told why Arezou eventually decides not to go with her either. We gradually discover that Nargess’s failure to board a bus is a phobic reaction, the source of which may be suggested very late in the picture when we see another woman get into a paddy wagon.

It’s part of the overall risky strategy of this poetically interactive movie to have the story of one woman continued or “completed” by the story of another—an artificial procedure that the film usually brings off by making all the fragments we glimpse both extremely lifelike and congruent with one another. This method may constitute a kind of shotgun wedding between formalism and realism, poetry and agitprop, but Panahi stages it with such natural grace it sometimes feels like a marriage made in heaven.

* * *

This is the first Iranian noir I’ve seen—and I’m using “noir” here to denote a style that isn’t “ours” but the world’s. After all, the term is French, and it’s worth adding that French culture has probably influenced Iran as much as it has us. (The most common way of saying “thank you” in Tehran, apparent in The Circle, is “merci.”) Fear and noir typically go together; the most frightening of Val Lewton’s noirish B films, The Leopard Man, has a somewhat similar narrative structure—a relay passing from one character to the next—though so do Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty and Richard Linklater’s Slacker, among other art-house examples.

Mainstream movie counterparts come as readily to mind. In more ways than I can count, The Circle is like punchy Warners proletarian-protest quickies of the 30s, with feisty convicts, a self-accepting prostitute who could have been played by Joan Blondell, salty bit parts, and a kind of narrative pacing—with characters drifting in and out of the plot—that evokes the way people move on a busy city sidewalk. (Are American movies made before we were born “ours” or “theirs”? I think they can become ours if we choose to adopt them.)

The movie begins and ends with two virtuoso long takes—both 360-degree pans defining the poetic and metaphoric limits of Panahi’s universe (for better and for worse), so overloaded they seriously threaten to explode the film’s structure. In the first, a baby is being born offscreen in a hospital, its mother howling with pain; when a nurse reports through a window in a door that it’s a girl, the grandmother is clearly upset—”But the ultrasound said it would be a boy!”—and continues to worry about repercussions from the in-laws as she goes downstairs and speaks to another daughter. As the second daughter leaves the hospital she passes three women at a phone booth—all former prisoners who quickly take over the narrative. In the last (and more problematic) shot a prostitute enters a jail cell where virtually all of the major characters in the film are revealed during one long circular pan. A nearby phone rings, and a guard appears at a window in the cell door asking for a woman who, it turns out, is apparently in an adjacent cell—and her name belongs to the mother who gave birth in the opening shot.

Simply put, Panahi’s film is about Iranian women who aren’t free to ride on buses or stay in hotels without IDs, to walk down the street alone or enter some places without chadors, to hitch rides or smoke cigarettes in public (a running gag, as one character after another tries to light up), to have abortions or function as single mothers, to be let off easily by the cops (unlike some men we see). And for all the artificiality of the bookend shots, of the many charted circular paths in between, of doors with windows that are peered through—not to mention a narrative that’s a catalog of abuses—the surface textures of this film are every bit as realistic and immediate as those in The White Balloon and The Mirror. Its bluntness and effectiveness make some people—both Iranians and non-Iranians—furious, but then, political provocations tend to put us all on the spot, making us angry or defensive, sometimes both.

When I met Panahi at the Toronto film festival last September he insisted that The Circle wasn’t political and that its story could be set anywhere. He’s said the same thing on several other occasions. Calling The Circle apolitical is tantamount to insisting that pork is a vegetable, but considering all that Panahi has had to contend with for having made it, it’s hard to fault him for saying such a thing; it’s even likely that he believes it.

It may also be a matter of semantics, depending on whether one believes humanism qualifies as an ideology. “A political filmmaker commits to a certain ideology, tries to propagate that through his work, and attacks opposing ideologies,” Panahi has said. “In The Circle I am not attacking or supporting anyone. I am not saying who’s good and who’s evil. I am trying to look at everyone from a humanistic point of view and hold a mirror that reflects social realities. It’s up to the audience to interpret those realities in political terms if they wish to do so. I have made an art film with a message of protest, not a subversive political film.”

Whether his movie is political or not, Panahi struggled for years before receiving script approval from the Iranian government, and it seems likely that he never would have got it without the international success of his previous features. The Circle still doesn’t have a permit for screenings in Iran and reportedly has been shown there only once, at a secret screening planned for 25 students; according to Panahi, “400 students showed up” and “their reaction was very positive.” Last year he rejected a proposal to show it at the Faj film festival in Tehran without its final 18 minutes; instead he showed a video of the uncut version to foreign guests at his house. That encouraged some Iranians—including many liberal-minded ones—to accuse him of tailoring his film for Westerners and of reinforcing stereotypes they have of Iranians.

This was part of the argument made last March by two women’s studies professors, Roksana Bahramitash and Homa Hoodfar, in the Montreal Gazette. They say The Circle “creates three distinct kinds of problems for those of us intent on familiarizing people with the realities of women’s situation in the Muslim world. First, it ignores completely the multiplicity of women’s acts of resistance to and subversion of oppressive practices. Second, it presents the story of Iranian women as one of continuous defeat. As a result, they seem in dire need of a white knight to ride in from the West, much as the Crusaders did, to rescue them. Third, it compromises Muslim women’s position and poisons the atmosphere among family, friends and community. When one of our teenage daughters saw the movie, she whispered: ‘I will never go back to Iran’ because of her shame about being Iranian.”

This is more us-and-them thinking, and it gives me the creeps. If people are going to make charges of this kind against Panahi, they might as well say that The Circle is tailored specifically for Westerners who tolerate cigarettes and abortions and find virtue in unhypocritical prostitutes. But how seriously would we take anyone who charged, say, William Faulkner with tailoring Light in August for Yankees and French intellectuals? It’s my favorite novel in any language, and since I’m told it’s easier to find in Persian than it is to find any Iranian novel in English, I harbor the fantasy that some Iranians, some other Americans, and I might like it for similar reasons, regardless of our differences—and that’s an “our” unlike the one proposed by Bahramitash and Hoodfar, an “our” I can fully endorse and respect.

These women’s responses to The Circle are, unfortunately, precisely the sort of things complex works of art tend to foster. I’d hate to hear the shellacking King Lear might get from critics pointing out how unfair it is to grateful children and humble patriarchs. Obviously, there’s always a price to pay for expressing negativity about the state of things. But it strikes me as unthinkable that Panahi himself would ever express shame about being Iranian, whatever his quarrels with the Islamic republic, and it seems highly unlikely that any white knight—a stereotype of Western white males I find abhorrent—could offer as much in the way of rescue as the blazing light of Panahi’s measured detachment and his anger. Furthermore, to suggest that the women he shows are all “defeated” is a reductive summary of a story that shows varying degrees of solidarity among women, along with highly visible signs of pride and defiance. One of the first things we see in the film is a woman berating a man on the street for having asked her and a friend if they were alone—not exactly the behavior of a passive victim. And I’m afraid these academics give the game away when they add, “Interestingly, the movie was made by a man, evidently seeking Hollywood success.” I’m not holding my breath until DreamWorks offers Panahi an exclusive contract; but given that he doesn’t speak a word of any language except Farsi, I can’t imagine what he’d do with one if they did.

“There are many other Iranian movies, technically and aesthetically of higher quality,” they continue, “which present a far more honest and accurate picture that have received no acclaim in the West.” They don’t give a single title, making their argument impossible to refute, though perhaps they had in mind Divorce Iranian Style (which happens to be showing for free at Northwestern this Wednesday, June 13). That film, which tied for fourth place on my ten-best list for 2000, received a modicum of acclaim in the West, which may disqualify it. And while I wouldn’t call it “technically and aesthetically of higher quality,” it is a masterful documentary made by two women, one of them Iranian. And it’s wonderfully attentive to “the multiplicity of women’s acts of resistance to and subversion of oppressive practices,” presenting the story of Iranian women as one of frequent—if not continuous—triumph against immense obstacles. Nevertheless, I see it as beautifully complementing The Circle without in any way challenging or negating what it has to say.

Of course Panahi doesn’t give the whole picture of women in Iranian society. Who could, and who would want to? Light in August doesn’t begin to offer the full range of Mississippi society either, and its rage about racial injustice—which must give some unwarranted solace to glib Yankees—has to be judged partially by the emotions it stirs in the rest of us. Some southerners may well say those feelings are defeatist and will provoke embarrassment and shame in their children. I find the book both exalting and tragic, beautiful and caring, measured and unreconciled. Like many works of art, it can and should affect people differently.

* * *

As an American, I can still criticize this country’s government without being labeled a potential terrorist. But according to our State Department, being an Iranian automatically makes one a potential fundamentalist terrorist—regardless of whether one is critical of this country or even whether one is a fundamentalist—and so U.S. customs officials routinely fingerprint and take mug shots of Iranians crossing our borders. In this respect, I might have to concede that “their” regime may be better than “ours,” because even though Iranians hear about Americans such as McVeigh and countless trigger-happy teenagers with handguns, “their” officials don’t fingerprint or take mug shots of American visitors to Iran.

When Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven was nominated for an Oscar he was fingerprinted and photographed as soon as he crossed the border en route to the Academy Awards ceremony. (Maybe they were afraid he would shoot Billy Crystal if he didn’t win.) Also in 1998, Darius Mehrjui, one of the pioneers of the Iranian new wave, met the same humiliation when he, his Harvard-educated wife, and their two-year-old son were en route to a retrospective of his work at Lincoln Center, to which he’d been invited jointly by the Human Rights Watch film festival and the United Nations. In a state of shock, he and his wife had told customs officials they’d rather fly back to Iran than be fingerprinted and photographed. They were told that they couldn’t leave until their fingerprints and mug shots were taken—because they were already on American soil and thus subject to American laws.

Why are our customs officials—or more precisely, the blowhards dictating their policies—so obnoxious? In part, it may be because of the increasing, largely market-imposed isolationism of American culture. “Lately,” Gore Vidal wrote in Vanity Fair in 1998, “I have been going through statistics about terrorism (usually direct responses to crimes our government has committed against foreigners—although, recently, federal crimes against our own people are increasing). Only twice in 12 years have American commercial planes been destroyed in flight by terrorists; neither originated in the United States. To prevent, however, a repetition of these two crimes, hundreds of millions of travelers must now be submitted to searches, seizures, delays.” And it appears that Iranians are among those who get treated with particular callousness. The Iran hostage crisis during the Carter administration is probably a major reason for this behavior—a crisis that, in keeping with Vidal’s point, was partly the response of fundamentalists to the CIA-orchestrated coup ousting prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.

In any case, Panahi got so sick of being treated like a criminal every time he came here—and he’s been here many times with his films—that he finally chose to stop coming. This led to special waivers of the policy when he attended the New York Film Festival with The Circle last fall and when he later came to Washington, D.C. But the waivers ceased once George W. assumed office. When Panahi recently flew from Hong Kong to South America to attend a couple of film festivals, he had to change planes at JFK. United Airlines assured him he wouldn’t have to submit to the usual insult dished out to all Iranians, regardless of race, creed, or color, but the airline was mistaken. When Panahi refused to cooperate with customs officials he was shackled to a bench for more than 12 hours along with numerous people from other countries, not allowed to phone anyone, and then sent straight back to Hong Kong—even after he showed evidence of who he was and where he was going.

One could argue that Panahi, a man with an irreconcilable martyr complex, should have put up with this minor nuisance and not made things so hard for himself—though if he’d done that, it’s unlikely the rest of us would have ever heard about what’s being done in “our” name. I can’t imagine Bahramitash and Hoodfar condoning what happened, but it does seem ironic that the man they allege caters to American prejudices about Iranians and is “evidently seeking Hollywood success” keeps getting treated like a dog when he passes through American customs. Yet their argument paradoxically meshes with the practice of U.S. customs officials, who are essentially saying, “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat—who do you think you are, an American?”

So what should we do about this state of affairs? Should we applaud Panahi for protesting injustice wherever he finds it? Or should we call him an asshole for protesting when he finds it over here? And how should we feel when he forces us to acknowledge a practice most of us are less aware of than the chadors Iranian women have to wear? Maybe this man is a terrorist after all—an emotional terrorist whose aim is to upset us.

I realize that the referents for “we” and “us” in the above paragraph keep shifting, meaning something different with every usage. But that’s what often happens when we use those words, especially when they have national, racial, and ethnic referents—and it’s only when boat rockers like Panahi come along that we even begin to notice some of the impostures involved. If we’re all simply Westerners looking at Iranians in The Circle—”us” looking at “them”—we can’t be paying much attention to what the film is doing, which also has something to do with an Iranian looking at Iranians. But not paying attention is what many of us are accustomed to doing: as Americans, as Iranians, as moviegoers, and even as newspaper readers.

One of the festivals Panahi had been heading for and never reached was one I was attending in Buenos Aires, and when his account of his ordeal went out in English on the Internet, I spent some time with Mark Peranson, editor of the Canadian magazine Cinema Scope, trying to find out whether any North American newspapers had bothered to report the incident. At that point none had, though later the LA Times and Village Voice ran stories. The New York Times never did, deciding instead that the jokey putdowns of Otto Preminger’s Exodus by Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein were what its urbane readers who followed movies really needed to hear about.

I suspect one of the main differences between the ways my colleague who sent the E-mail and I view the world right now is that he sees it mainly as divided into countries with separate systems of belief, while I see it as slowly becoming united in certain respects by systems of belief that congregate around cultural objects. One major instrument for locating and exploring systems of belief and cultural objects is the Internet—it’s no longer TV, which is why Peranson and I conducted our research at a cybercafe rather than turning on CNN. For that matter, I’d certainly trust the Internet over the White House when it comes to establishing what global meaning and impact Iranian cinema has.

We still don’t choose where we’re born, our race, our ethnicity, or our gender, so defining ourselves in those terms severely limits our capacity to identify ourselves as self-determining individuals. But because of the global market we’re increasingly able to choose which cultural and ethical values we subscribe to. And if national borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant to this process (except perhaps for advertisers planning their marketing campaigns), the way we use personal pronouns has to start changing.

So in this context it’s worth asking finally, to whom does The Circle belong? It may have been authorized in part (and with some reluctance) by the Islamic Republic of Iran, but one clearly can’t claim it belongs to them, especially if they won’t allow it to be shown. And one can’t say that it belongs to “the Iranian people” if some of them are vociferously disowning it. So does it belong to the Westerners some Iranians and some Westerners claim it was tailored for, most of whom haven’t seen it and probably never will? Or does it belong to the Iranians who can’t see it, some of whom wouldn’t like it if they did?

The problem isn’t nearly as acute as I’m making it sound. In reality there are already a good many people across the globe who feel passionately about The Circle, and it’s silly to try to separate them with antiquated nationalist jargon and tribalist chants. Some of them are in the West, some are in the East, some are in the Middle East, and some are even in the midwest. And some Iranians in North America like it. Together, we might constitute a community of sorts, people who’d be happy to call this lovely and mysterious object our film—at least if other people will let us.

I don’t speak a word of Farsi, yet I can’t think of a movie I’ve seen anywhere over the past year that speaks to me as directly or as powerfully. I certainly haven’t seen any shot as breathtakingly beautiful or as dramatically satisfying as the long take of the prostitute (Mojhan Faramarzi) sitting alone in the police van after a male prisoner has successfully offered cigarettes to the two cops riding in front, one of whom had previously told her to put out the cigarette she was starting to light. Taking a furtive glance around, and realizing that she can finally light her cigarette in peace because no one will stop her or even notice, she looks out the dark window and takes a drag while the night rolls past.

I think it matters that Panahi, I, and many others have a film and certain emotions about it in common—even though we don’t share a country, a government, a language, a set of laws, a definition of politics, or even the same treatment at the hands of U.S. customs officials. At a time when many Americans are acting as if this country were the only one that truly existed or mattered, that’s a meaningful place to start.