In April 2001, Iranian director Panahi left Hong Kong for South America, where his film The Circle was playing at festivals in Montevideo and Buenos Aries. Though he was assured he didn’t need a transit visa, the acclaimed filmmaker found himself shackled by customs officers at JFK airport during a routine layover. Adding insult to injury: Kiarostami’s visa to enter the United States in order to attend a screening of Ten at last year’s New York Film Festival was denied. In light of these two events, numerous directors (Aki Kaurismäki, Bertrand Tavernier, among others) subsequently cancelled trips to festivals across the United States in solidarity with Panahi and Kiarostami.
Crimson Gold is more cyclical, socially conscious cinema from the world of Panahi and Kiarostami. This parable begins at the end when a lonely pizza deliveryman, Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), shoots himself in the head after a botched jewel heist. The narrative quickly rewinds and Panahi observes the simple but devastating events that would slowly squash the man’s human spirit. The genius of Kiarostami’s deceptively simple screenplay is how it quietly evokes America’s post-9/11 immigration policy in the repeated embarrassments of the film’s lead. But because Crimson Gold is also about the oppression of one Iranian man by his own people, it’s impossible to write off the film as some knee-jerk anti-American provocation.
The practical and logical Hussein tries to deliver pizza to an apartment complex but is forced to wait outside by authorities that are there to crash a party. This scenario is riddled with endless absurdities (the officers wait for their victims to come to them and not the other way around), and it’s a testament to Hussein’s humanity that he’s able to retain his capacity for kindness in spite of the way he’s treated (while the officers sit around, he offers them pizza). Hussein does a lot of waiting in the film: outside a jewelry store when the owner doesn’t let him in; inside the store after he and his friends dress up and pretend to be rich; and inside a bourgeois apartment when his rich customer is engaged in nonsense talk on the telephone.
“If you want to arrest a thief, you’ll have to arrest the world,” says an armchair philosopher in the film as Hussein’s friend Ali (Kamyar Sheissi) goes through the contents of a woman’s purse he’s just stolen. Tipsy from this conversation about guesswork, entitlement, and cause and effect, Ali envisions a world where he can spare himself considerable embarrassment by knowing the contents of a woman’s purse before pinching it. Crimson Gold is a film largely concerned with the surface of things, and the message of this mystical scene is abundantly clear: Just as Ali cannot separate the purse from the woman, the United States cannot separate terrorism from the Middle Eastern man.
Every scene in Crimson Gold evokes oppression within Iran and, much more cunningly, the nasty “you are either with us or against us” mentality the United States adopted after 9/11. Just as Hussein’s constant waiting is meant to humorously parallel Panahi’s own detainment at JFK, a conversation at the film’s crucial jewelry store more largely references our country’s isolationist mentality (the store advises Hussein to buy Iranian gold, not the imported Italian kind). Panahi and Kiarostami understand the effects of 9/11 on our country’s policies, but when does safeguarding one’s country come at the expense of another’s humiliation? Like one character in the film says: “Show some mercy, please.”