3 Faces (Iran, 2018) [AFI FEST 2018]

Since the start of his post-ban period of filmmaking with 2011’s This Is Not A Film, Jafar Panahi has more explicitly addressed the heightened porosity between documentary and fiction, and by extension actual and staged; conscious use of various digital mobile media and their distinct visual textures to capture marginal experiences/perspectives; and exploration of creative, performative forms of testimony as well as the mediation and mediatisation of realities. Not to say that all of his post-ban films resemble and repeat each other; quite the contrary. Each of the four films that he has now made, including his latest titled 3 Faces, is visually, structurally, and formally distinct from each other. And together, they reveal the profound level of artistry and commitment that is at work in Panahi despite the constrained conditions in which he is compelled to make films. 3 Faces finds Panahi making use of his most extensive (exterior) setting yet, expanding from Taxi (2015) and its journey around Tehran via the titular vehicle with Panahi in the driver’s seat and in contrast to the enforced confinement of his first two post-ban films, This Is Not A Film and Closed Curtain (2013).

Panahi is literally once again in the driver’s seat in 3 Faces, but the film does not actually begin with this point. Instead, the first sequence consists of cell phone footage shot by and featuring a young woman named Marziyeh in what looks to be a cave. Addressing herself to a ‘Madam Jafari,’ she pleads for help because her and her fiancé’s families will not allow her to study filmmaking as she had intended when she was accepted to a conservatory before her parents arranged for her to be married—an attempt, as her mother later relates, to oust the idea of leaving the village and studying in Tehran from her daughter’s mind. The young woman’s state of mind grows desperate as the video continues, as she stresses that Jafari is the only person who can help her. Her desperation reaching a breaking point, Marziyeh then puts a noose around her neck and presumably commits suicide, a moment during which the cell phone drops from her hand, thus sparing the viewer of the worst.

The film then switches to the viewer and addressee of the footage, actress Behnouz Jafari playing herself, shocked and confused by what she has just seemingly witnessed on her friend’s cell phone. As this initial scene in a new setting develops, one realises that Jafari is sitting in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle, with her friend driving. For those who can recognise his voice, her friend is none other than Panahi, though he is not shown until the next sequence. It is nighttime and the two are in fact on their way to the village from which Marziyeh hails, to see if in fact the event/suicide presented in the video was real or faked. And so kicks off an atypical road movie that goes through dirt roads that wind around hills, among which lie villages and entrenched rituals and perceptions of gender roles. Not knowing which is real or fake is one element of our current (news) media landscape and Panahi takes this issue as the point of departure for an examination of gender oppression and perception, centered on three women: Marziyeh, Jafari, and a one-time pre-revolutionary actress named Shahrzad whose face is ironically never seen.

In truth, if one considers Panahi’s previous film Taxi also as an unlikely road movie, then 3 Faces becomes not so atypical. What is more, 3 Faces’ central issue of female agency locked against constrained social pressures and expectations regarding gender roles is very much in line with even Panahi’s pre-ban films, especially The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006). But as a Panahi film, 3 Faces never plainly states its politics; or if it does, it does so in a briefly frank manner only to be diffused by or plaited with other strands of encounters and conversations that provide a more expansive portrait of village life without necessarily demonising anyone. The longer they stay in the village, the more village life bubbles up to the surface as the most prominent strand, while Marziyeh’s subtly becomes ‘secondary.’ As the pair gets to know more of the village and hangs out with its inhabitants, eventually spending the night, a colourful scroll of the community unfurls, from the folks on the narrow dirt road on the way to the village who demonstrate the horn system to make sure that the way is clear, the older man whose family holds a celebration of his son’s circumcision, the old woman who has a grave dug for herself and lies in it in the daytime to acquaint herself with her next abode, and finally some of the villagers who greet them warmly upon their arrival in the village center but quickly disperse when they realise that helping them with their problems (electricity, water) is not the reason they are there. But they are indeed there regarding a problem, namely, the fixed attitude/perception about females and their place in life (home/family/community). Through Panahi’s delicate handling of these myriad encounters/conversations, the film’s point gradually comes into focus: village ways and Marziyeh’s situation are but two sides of the same coin.

Jafari and Panahi’s presence in the village also generates an unexpected solidarity among different generations linked through their involvement in acting and/or filmmaking. If Jafari in relation to Marziyeh’s aspirations to study film represents the freedom to do so and additionally prompt respect, then Shahrzad represents the opposite and the ostracism and stigmatisation that come with it (enforced by the villagers, as custom dictates it).

And Panahi’s place in this solidarity? One could also read into the linked though varied experiences of the three women his own experiences of being silenced, stigmatised, and isolated due to his 2010 sentencing as well as of continuing to make films anyway regardless of the sentence. What is more, Panahi is literally the one who puts Jafari and Marziyeh in contact with each other, as the former sent the video footage to his cell phone in the first place. This detail is then echoed in the fact that Panahi has made a film about women who have been or continue to be maltreated, suppressed, and/or denounced in this world.

3 Faces was shown on November 10 and 14 at AFI FEST.