Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Jafar Panahi | سه رخ‎ (Se rokh) (3 Faces)

an observer of his own secret art
by Douglas Messerli

Jafar Panahi and Nader Saeivar (screenplay), Jafar Panahi (director) سه رخ‎ (Se rokh) (3 Faces) / 2018

You might describe the great Iranian film director Jafar Panahi as a kind of master of deception. Despite his 20-year ban from making films, he has managed to produce a number of cinematic works that subtly transform his personal activities into films that while, dodging the issue of making a true motion picture, still ask all viewers the important question of just how and what a movie means.
     In one work, This Is Not a Film, Panahi stayed entirely within the confines of his apartment and the building in which it exists, using the camera and even his cell-phone to document his interchanges with family members, his lawyer, and even a  delivery boy, not to forget his large pet iguana. In another, the director hires himself out as a taxi driver, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, (it’s important to quote the full title, since he debunks the notion of Panahi as a filmmaker, centering his role instead on his taxi-driver existence) who picks up famous and not-so-famous riders whose various conversations determine the structure and themes of the film.
     Compared with these early works, his 2018 work, 3 Faces, seems absolutely expansive in its range of territory. Like his previous films the characters in this piece are precisely who they claim to be: Behnaz Jafari is a famous TV actress, Panahi is a noted director, and the young woman they are seeking, Marziveh Rezaei, is a would-be actress who has been accepted by a noted Teheran acting school, but whose family—particularly her brutish, misogynistic brother and the husband and his family, who we never see—are violently opposed to her desired career, refusing to allow her to leave their isolated village on the side of a mountain in rural northwestern Iran, where the natives mostly speak Azeri-Turkish.
      What brings Jafari and Panahi to this isolated region is a cell-phone message, sent originally by the young girl to Panahi, but directed to the famous Jafari. In the filmed message, the girl is seen apparently on the verge of committing suicide because of the family restrictions and the fact that although Marziveh has tried several times to reach the actress, she has received no answer and no reprieve from her desperate situation.
       In the last few frames of this message the girl seemingly hooks a noose to a large wooden outcrop within a hidden cave, and leaps to her death.
       After watching the cellphone message which Panahi has shown her, the overwrought Jafari jumps into his car, demanding that they travel to the region bordering Azerbaijan, abandoning without notification the important final scene of her series.
        Jafari insists that she has never received a message from the girl and, although admitting that she often changes phone numbers which she passes on to friends, insists that if any of her acquaintances received such a message they would have notified her. She also suspects that the film may be a fraud, and that Panahi himself may further be involved since we once suggested she play a character in a film about a suicide. In short, the director has already created a sense of drama and suspicion which is at the heart of any good film.
       Moreover, when they finally arrive in the area, driving on dirt roads that narrowly wind through the region—at one point encountering a native who demands a series of honks from the car, evidently a way in which those also on the road know you are approaching and whether or not your travel upon the road is or is not urgent—they reach their destination where, after visiting with the mother and her nearly insane son (the mother is forced to lock him away in his room in order to attend to her guests); meet with Marziveh’s close friend; and, we soon find out, collaborator; and investigate the supposed location of the girl’s death they discover the girl is safe and in good health, hidden away in a house that lies a ways outside the village.
     Jafari is furious with the girl, striking her again and again for her lies and forcing her travel the long way while putting her own career in danger. But as the two outsiders attempt to turn back to Teheran they are met with yet another impediment, a large bull who is dying in the center of the road whose owner refuses to kill him because of his long-time service as a stud-bull, impregnating hundreds of heifers, a new batch of which will arrive at the local market the very next day.
     Frustrated by these several issues, Panahi, playing a very patient but somewhat stand-offish figure—for example, he watches the fight between the girl and the actress without intruding, and later refuses to be drawn into Marziveh’s plight—turns the car around with Jafari’s insistence that they must return to help the girl in her situation.
     Despite Panahi’s rather straight-faced non-involvement in the shooting of somewhat comedic “movie,” we nonetheless realize that a cameraman (Amin Jafar) is hiding somewhere just outside of the frame and the supposedly “reality-based” documentary has, indeed, begun with a kind of fiction. If this is not a film, we can only ask, what is it?
      In fact, 3 Faces is kind of cinematic decoy where the two central figures experience a sometimes dramatic and often inexplicable on-the-road encounters not only with the would-be actress, her family, and friend, but a head-on collision with another culture, where a woman sleeps in her own grave and a man asks Jafari to take back his recently circumscribed son’s skin to bury it in a place that will bring him a good education and career.
      If nearly all the villagers are acquainted through their cell-phones and TV satellites with Jafari and know of Panahi’s forbidden films, they hilariously think that the two have been sent to them by the government to help them to obtain what they desperately need: a new road, a doctor, better cell-phone reception, etc.
      Time and again the two visitors are invited to stop, chat, and share tea and other local delicacies; yet Jafari and Panahi, in a hurry to settle the matter with Marziveh, shoulder on with the director sleeping the night in his car while Jafari bravely walks back into the village to call her studio director and plan a second visit of the girl’s family when her father, evidently far more moderate than Marziveh’s brother, has returned in the morning.
      By the time Jafari reenters the girl’s home the next morning—with Panahi once again disavowing any role in the transaction (“women are better at this,” in offhandedly observes)—they have both learned of the fates the woman of this region face if they do not go along with the self-proclaimed laws dictated to them by the village patriarchs.
      Marziveh’s friend recounts a time when, frustrated with the narrowness of the road, she attempted with shovel in hand to extend the road a little to enable a small turn-around, male village leaders insisted it was not work for a woman to do. The home in which Marziveh is hiding belongs to an actress, poet, and dancer Shahrzad, once famous for her appearances in Iranian cinema, who was shunned by the villagers upon her return and pointed to as an example of how women ended up after such a career. Marziveh’s mother is terrified that if the men discover that her daughter has stayed in the house, the men will burn it down. Shahrzad, as some critics have observed, might almost be seen as a 4th face, except we never see her except from a very far distance.
      Panahi’s passivity might be explained simply as a ruse to appease the Iranian censors, suggesting it is not he who is controlling any of these events, but the others who have created the drama. As in his taxi driver role, he is here just a driver taking Jafari to where, sometimes contradictorily, she desires to go.
      Yet, finally, when Marziveh’s brother, locked outside of his house, grabs a brick from a nearby wall, directly threatening the director sitting quietly in the automobile. Even here, however, Panahi remains in a passive role, rolling up his window and exiting the car to move a distance away.
      In a brilliant cut to the final long scene we see the damage on the car’s front window that that brick has rendered. The car is moving back toward Teheran with both the director and actress in the front seats. At the place where they must honk for safety’s sake they are told by three long honks that something more important than their flight is on its way.
       At that moment Jafari, leaving the car, insists she needs a walk, and heads down the dirt road for a long distance before, from the back seat, the young student actress calls out and runs toward her, the first time we perceive that Jafari has obviously been able to negotiate the girl’s freedom.
       The arriving vehicles of trucks are the promised bellowing heifers, obviously on their way to encounter a new stud bull—or you never know in this strange place, perhaps the resuscitated earlier bull. Panahi must wait a bit longer as the girl, desperate to become the next generation’s famous actress and her famous savior walk forward into the distance and out of sight.
       The would-be director has lost his film’s heroes to the acts of their own volition. He is but a delivery man, who in the capitol city will later drop them off for the activities that will continue to define their lives. For Panahi, we recognize, such a role has been stolen, leaving him as a mere observer of his own secret art.
        At the Cannes Film Festival, this observer received the award with co-writer Nadar Saeivar for Best Screenplay.

Los Angeles, July 28, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).

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