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Jafar Panahi: Social Issues Filmmaker

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Dr Anne Demy-Geroe examines the role of women in Jafar Panahi's 3 Faces.

Jafar Panahi and famous contemporary Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari receive a very disturbing video sent by a young woman from a remote Azerbaijani village. It’s purportedly a selfie of her suicide because her parents will not allow her to accept her hard-earned place in the elite acting conservatory in Tehran. Although Panahi and Jafari cannot determine if the film is authentic, they set out for her village. En route Jafar’s mother calls, alarmed that he might be making another film. He denies it. “Now you're telling your mother fibs?” And Behnaz has walked off the set of her current film to make the trip, causing consternation and many calls from her desperate producer…

Panahi has yet again bypassed the official decree forbidding him from making films with his fourth “post-arrest” film, 3 Faces. On the face of it we just might be watching a documentary, so realistic does it all seem. But familiarity with Panahi’s work suggests otherwise and indeed this is another intricately scripted and self-reflexive Panahi film about creative repression and resistance. While each of his post-arrest films has dealt with this issue in different ways, Panahi broadens the scope dramatically in 3 Faces by drawing together threads of former concerns to focus on the titular three faces of actresses, past, present and future.

Women have always been central to Panahi’s work – from those feisty young leads in his first films, the so-called Children Films, The White Balloon and The Mirror, to his precocious niece for whom he is a willing chauffeur in Tehran Taxi, delighting or perhaps despairing in her innocent assumptions about filmmaking. But here Panahi, who states quite frequently in both conversation and interview “I am a social issues filmmaker”, focuses on the issues facing Iranian actresses. In The Mirror his very young actress Mina faces the camera to announce twice, “I’m not acting anymore.” An emphatic choice. In 3 Faces he picks up another thread, from The Circle. In its prologue when a young woman gives birth to a girl her mother expresses great concern about the potential response of her daughter’s in-laws who had been expecting a boy. The film then moves to the grim plight of Iranian women of a particular social class who, unlike Mina, have no choices. This also appears to be the situation for Marziyeh, the youngest of the three actors in 3 Faces and the representative of the future, who just cannot live if she can’t choose to act. Panahi knows this feeling about being unable to express himself creatively only too well. In Closed Curtain Melika, his metaphorical muse, encourages him to literally drown his desperation as an artist unable to express himself and we see him walk into the sea. But technology intervenes and the footage is rewound. In 3 Faces technology is also important in conveying the possible suicide scene. The authenticity of the film hangs on whether there is a cut. Panahi claims that if there is one it would have to have been done professionally, not in this village. So perhaps the footage is an authentic portrayal.

Behnaz Jafari is a clever choice as the representative of the present, an actress who unites the popular with the arthouse in her selection of film roles. One of her earliest roles was in Rakshan Bani-Etemad’s The Blue Veiled from 1995. Cinephiles might also recognise her from other independent films such Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000), A Respectable Family (Massoud Bakhshi, 2012), Lantouri (Reza Dormeshian, 2016) or Sound and Fury (Houman Seyyedi, 2016), most of which have screened at MIFF or IFFA. This impeccable record as an indie actress is in stark contrast with how the villagers of Sanan recognise her - for her role in the very popular Mokhtarnameh, a religious serial consisting of forty episodes shot over five years, set in 686AD, about a Shi’ite leader who avenges the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of Muhammad. 

Yet despite the obvious delight of the villagers at the arrival of Panahi and Jafari in their hometown, their conflicted attitude towards cinema and acting as something perhaps sinful is expressed in their use of the word “entertainers” to describe members of the film industry. This conservative terminology surprises and rankles Jafar and reflects the villagers’ position on Marziyeh, one of their own, becoming an actress. The young girl who has worked so hard to be accepted into the conservatory faces age-old prejudices against the cinema.

The very important third face - that of the past – is Shahrzad, the pre-revolutionary actress to whom the young Marziyeh turns when in distress. Shahrzad has been exiled by the local mayor to the edge of the town, where she lives in poverty. She was one of the most famous actors of her time, but as with most pre-revolutionary actresses, her face, like Panahi’s films, is banned from the screen. Thus we never see her from the front, but we do hear her voice – recordings of her own poetry - and we see her in the fields painting. We also see the shadow of her dancing in the window – a reference to her film roles, largely as a dancer and singer. Shahrzad expresses to Behnouz her disdain of film directors for their lack of support for their actresses. This is duly reported back to a pensive Panahi. 

Panahi’s interest is not solely focused on cinema. An Azerbaijani himself, he is exploring his own roots. One of the locals he meets early on makes it clear that his “Turkish” is not too good and suggests that he should speak in Farsi, indicating that Panahi is not a frequent visitor to the region. But like anyone exploring their past he is fascinated with the various traditions and rituals he encounters. Eventually cinema and ritual conjoin. Jafar is entrusted with the foreskin of a little boy, preserved in salt. The child’s father brings out a poster of the very famous pre-revolutionary film Qeysar and asks that Panahi give the foreskin to the film’s lead, the great actor Behrouz Vassoughi, so that the boy will grow up to be equally virile. Jafari notes wistfully that Vassoughi is in exile, unable to return to Iran, and Panahi cannot leave Iran. What remains unsaid is that Vassoughi has continued to be feted, receiving many accolades in exile, and was featured in Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season. The director of Qeysar, Massoud Kimiai, continues to work in Iran and cast one of Iran’s most famous contemporary actresses, Mahnaz Afshar in his 2014 film Metropole. Yet Shahzard, reviled and exiled from the village, is one of the female leads in Qeysar. The ironic injustice in gender equality brings the film full circle to the problem of the young Marziyeh. And it parallels the scene in The Circle where a sex worker who is found in the car of a man cannot prove she is related to him and is consequently is arrested, but the man goes free.

As an addendum, one might consider that 3 Faces gives a nod to Panahi’s sorely missed mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, whose 2008 film Shirin, was partly an homage to Iranian actresses, or perhaps even an apology for their absence from his earlier films. Along with some one hundred contemporary actresses Kiarostami included pre-revolutionary actress Iren, also forbidden from the screen, Panahi’s own daughter, not an actress, and of course Juliette Binoche, watching a performance of the famous Persian romance, “Khosrow and Shirin”.

Dr Anne Demy-Geroe teaches Asian Pacific cinema at Griffith Film School and holds a PhD on Iranian cinema from the University of Queensland. Dr Demy-Geroe was the inaugural director of the Brisbane International Film Festival from 1991 to 2010 and was subsequently the Co-Director of the Iranian Film Festival Australia. This year she chalked up her 17th year at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, twice as a jury member. Anne is interested in both the aesthetics and politics of Asian cinema.