Saturday, April 27, 2019

3 Faces (Se rokh)

Director Jafar Panahi

vacant seat for the director at the Cannes press conference

Actress Behnaz Jafar

Actress Behnaz Jafar with Marzieh Rezaei

Actress Marzieh Rezaei

3 FACES (Se rokh)                                 B-                   
Iran  (100 mi)  2018 d:  Jafar Panahi

I would like to thank the New York Film Festival for selecting my film, 3 Faces, for screening in the festival. I’d also like to thank Kino Lorber for distributing the film. I hope they won’t regret their decision! I am especially thankful to my dear friend Dr Jamsheed Akrami who has always supported my films in the United States.

I was invited to the New York Film Festival in 1995 with my first film, The White Balloon. At the time I could never foresee that there would come a day when I would be barred from attending a festival by my government. I would have loved to be present and see how an American audience would react to my film.

I am still so grateful that my films continue to be shown in many countries. Sadly I cannot say the same thing about my own country. Only my first film was publicly screened in Iran. Unfortunately, none of my following 8 films received screening permits.

Despite the obstacles that I was facing after the ban, I kept telling myself that I couldn’t give up and had to find a way to keep working. I am not alone. Many other Iranian filmmakers work under difficult circumstances. But instead of quitting or complaining, they persist and still make their films despite all the hurdles. Their determination to keep working against the odds makes me so hopeful about the future of Iranian cinema.

―Jafar Panahi, September 2018

The international community has heaped loads of praise upon this director, garnering plenty of sympathy in the West following his arrest after the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with allegations that Panahi was planning to make a documentary of a growing protest movement, sentenced to 6-years in prison and a 20-year ban on directing any movies, writing screenplays, and giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media.  The appeals court upheld his sentence and ban, initially placing him under house arrest, but he has since been allowed to move more freely, but cannot travel outside Iran, this despite the fact he has repeatedly violated the terms of his sentence, smuggling four films out of the country since 2011 that have been highly regarded, though he has no access to studio facilities, where this most recent film won the Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2018 (co-written by Panahi and Nader Saeivar), holding a press conference with an empty chair for Panahi, with his daughter Solmaz Panahi accepting the award while reading a statement in his behalf.  This is the second director, along with Russian Kirill Serebrennikov, with films competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018, but have been prevented from leaving their respective countries, so it comes as no surprise that this film deals with prejudice against women and artistic suppression under the old-world regime of male patriarchy.  This follows a recent pattern of films made on similar themes, a portrayal of arranged weddings in small-town life in Turkey from Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (2015), a look at the brutally repressive system of cash-only medical care in the post-colonial third world Democratic Republic of the Congo from Alain Gomis in Félicité (2017), Kantemir Balagov’s riveting Closeness (Tesnota) (2017) which provides a near documentary look into the tribal culture in the northern Caucasus region in Russia north of Georgia, Meryem Benm‘Barek-Aloïsi’s exposé on babies born to unwed mothers resulting in criminal charges in the Moroccan film Sofia (2018), Ash Mayfair’s historical overview of Vietnamese arranged marriages in The Third Wife (2018), and Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovnetti’s mythical portrait of female suppression in the Turkish film Sibel (2018).  While these are films playing the festival circuit, they reveal similar practices taking place around the world where elderly men continue to have power over the lives and destinies of young women, with age-old religious customs often deciding what’s in their best interests instead of the women themselves, usually with crushing results.  These films are all examples that follow a recent trend of political correctness, rigidly adhering to a set agenda that is established before the film is even made, which pales in comparison to truly liberating cinema, an example of which would be Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), a much more mysterious and in-depth examination of a complex woman’s psyche, more interested in expressing a personal transformation that resembles a rebirth, where cinema becomes a uniquely innovative style, with a goal of killing off all the extraneous stimuli from advertisements and mass cultural imagery meant to shape female habits and desires, as only then can you set your own agenda for the ultimate goal of being truly liberated and free.  Unfortunately, directors aren’t given that amount of artistic freedom anymore to take chances and say what they really want to say, so instead we get diatribes and platitudes.      

Reminiscent of early Kiarostami films like LIFE, AND NOTHING MORE… (1992) from his Koker trilogy, where Kiarostami as himself searched the catastrophic ruins of a rural countryside following a devastating earthquake to check on a child from an earlier film, with characteristics from THE WIND WILL CARRY US (1999) as well, including the reading of a poem, where there is a distinct feeling throughout that we’ve seen all this before, where the film is literally a whimsical tribute to Kiarostami, viewed as the father of modern Iranian cinema (and Panahi’s mentor, working as his assistant director), as it’s an exploration of the mountainous region of the East Azerbaijan Provice and the remote rural communities where Panahi grew up, becoming an offbeat road movie with director Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafar playing themselves as they visit the region by car in search of unraveling a curiously developing mystery.  Jafar is a popular Iranian actress, seen earlier in Samira Makhmalbaf’s BLACKBOARDS (2000) and Kiarostami’s SHIRIN (2008), but also known from television, where they are both viewed as celebrities, but also outsiders unfamiliar with the rural customs, where life is pretty much unchanged in the last century, stuck in a backwards mode of thinking where mythical realities still exist, clinging to rumors, superstitions and old-fashioned ways, with older men systematically holding the power of an entrenched patriarchal structure that dominates the region, repressive views that allow the fanatically conservative religious clerics to maintain their authoritative hold on power throughout the country.  Using a blend of documentary and fiction, the film opens with jarring cellphone footage of a visibly distraught girl (Marzieh Rezaei) presumably taking her own life as her parents have forbidden her from attending the prestigious Tehran School of Performing Arts, despite excellent grades and earning acceptance, with her parents countering with an arranged marriage to keep her in line.  Unsure if she’s still alive, Jafar abandons her own film shoot and enlists the aid of Panahi in searching out the girl’s village of Saran to inquire what happened.  What they immediately discover is just how difficult it is to distinguish one tiny village from another, as plenty are set in the mountain valleys, though with different languages, with much of the film spoken in Turkish (a language only Panahi and Rezaei understand), where it’s difficult to cross the circuitous mountain paths to get there, as the winding roads narrow to one lane, relying upon the sound of an automobile horn to announce your presence around the turns, like a warning shot, initiating a call and answer system that only the locals understand.  As they move deeper into the region, they approach people on the road or bystanders in town, searching for the house where she lives.  Initially they check the cemetery for a newly dug grave, but instead encounter an elderly woman lying in her own grave but still very much alive, yet she is preparing for her death, claiming she keeps a light on at night to keep the snakes (or evil spirits) away.     

Finding no evidence of the girl, Jafar suspects foul play, fearing they may have been set up, yet they’re surprised by the local reaction, where after running into a wedding party, another crowd gathered on the street initially greets them with welcome arms, thinking they are a utility repair crew, angrily disbanding afterwards when they learn they’re just a couple of “entertainers,” describing Marzieh as an “empty-headed” girl who won’t listen to reason, calling her a disgrace, an embarrassment to her family, bringing shame to the community, wasting her time in a frivolous endeavor instead of settling down in marriage and making herself useful.  This blatant antagonism shows what Marzieh was up against, with one of her brothers turning violent at the mere mention of her name, threatening to kill anyone that assists her.  While this reaction is a bit over the top, people come out of the woodworks to lend a helping hand, offering food and shelter, and the inevitable rounds of tea, all graciously offered, where the village of Saran (current population listed is 333, or 50 families) becomes the featured attraction, accentuated by a series of unexpected encounters with strangers that reveal a myriad of information, including the discovery of Shahrazade (a pseudonym used by real actress Kobra Amin Sa’idi, appearing in more than 50 films, also the first female director in Iran, now banned, the subject of a recent documentary, Poetry, or the Power of Existence: Shahin Parhami's "Shahrzaad's Tale"), an actress, poet, and dancer from the era before the 1979 revolution who was denounced, now retired and living as an outcast in a place of refuge where men are not allowed (including the filmmaker), seen only from a distance, illuminated in silhouette at night in the window of her home, where she can be seen dancing, viewed again in a long shot painting in the natural environment of an open field.  The 3 Faces refers to the three generations of actresses who are demonized by the locals and openly ridiculed, minimized into obscurity, while men are obsessed with the breeding habits of livestock, suggesting virility beyond what anyone could imagine, bringing untold sums of money into the community, the answer, apparently, to every man’s dream.  While they openly denigrate entertainers, they gush over Jafari, who is mobbed for autographs, recognizing her from television, treating her like a visit from royalty, completely clueless to the hypocrisy of their actions.  Similarly, an old villager is convinced of the magic powers of carefully preserved foreskins (from their circumcised sons), believing it holds the key to their future, so long as it is buried in the right place, near a medical facility where he will become a doctor, or near a school where he will become a teacher, etc.  These age-old superstitions seem to coexist with the patriarchal repressions of Islamic rule, making little sense, yet these customs are not easily discarded, particularly in uneducated communities that rely upon familiar customs and habits to pass down to each new generation.  Despite the intended tribute, the screenplay award is a stretch, as the film feels overlong, loses focus occasionally, and is never that involving, completely lacking Kiarostami’s subtlety, resorting to manipulation where men are essentially caricatures used for humor, feeling more like it’s intended to be politically correct than a work of art.  The final held shot however is an homage to a Kiarostami final shot from the Koker trilogy, beautifully extended, elegantly composed, and poetically revealing, becoming a painterly expression of cinema itself.    

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