Not shown on general release, to my knowledge, in Bradford, I was able to catch this courtesy of Bradford’s Literature Festival. It is the fourth of director Jafar Pahani’s films in his eighth year of a filmmaking ban in Iran. The film shares its guerilla-style filmmaking practices with the earlier films but is more adventurous in exploring a form of road movie. It opens with a ‘selfie’ film made on her phone by a young woman. She’s pleading for a rescue from her conservative family in her village home in the far North West of Iran where Azeri (or ‘Turkish’ as the locals call it) is the common language. She threatens suicide and the film is sent to the well-known film and TV actress Behnaz Jafari via the film director Jafar Panahi (both playing themselves). Distraught, Jafari insists Panahi take her to the girl’s village – abandoning her own filming schedule in the process.
The villages used in the film are those of Panahi’s own mother, father and grandparents, so he felt comfortable making a film there. There are several diversions on the way but eventually the cave where the video was shot is found and the young woman’s family in the village is identified. But this isn’t a thriller or a mystery. It’s a road movie with encounters. It’s also a fiction in which the two leads play themselves and their own personal narratives are woven into the story.
The Press Notes for the film reveal that the idea for the story came from one of many social media messages that the director receives. One day he received an Instagram message from a young would-be filmmaker which disturbed him and then he read a newspaper report about a young woman who committed suicide because she wasn’t allowed to make films. It’s difficult to discuss the film without spoilers but I’ll try to limit them. All I will say about the plot is that the title may refer to three women – the young woman in distress, the actor and an older woman in the village who has been ostracised because she was a performer before the revolution in 1979.
I’m further indebted to the Press Notes for a commentary on what Panahi hoped to achieve. The film provides him with a way of exploring the history of Iranian Cinema and the obstacles that filmmakers have faced in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. He even makes use of a single track mountain road which perhaps acts as a metaphor for the timeline of Iranian Cinema. The road winds around headlands which requires drivers to use their horns and listen for answering horns – and then follow a strict code of signals in sequence to discover whether to drive on or wait for an on-coming vehicle to pass. This is just one of the local traditions that visitors from Tehran must negotiate.
However, the remoteness of the region doesn’t mean local people are not aware of what is happening in Tehran. Behnaz Jafari is quickly recognised and the Press Notes suggest that villagers were actually watching her in a TV programme when Panahi arrived to film a scene. As the director and the actor travel around the village and stay overnight, the film offers a range of examples of the opposition between tradition and modernity, much of which is based on the patriarchal attitudes in the villages – though the women show themselves to be resourceful in counteracting the effects of their treatment by men. There is a neat balance between the solidarity of the three female ‘performers’ and the interaction between Panahi and one of the male elders who insists that Panahi must perform a ritual for him and his son and who references the star status of a popular male actor who was forced to flee Iran after the revolution, but still stands as a role model for ‘masculinity’.
Reading through reviews of the film, I note that several writers refer to similar films by Abbas Kiarostami. I did myself think of both Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). The first of these films is part of a trilogy of films in which Kiarostami explores the relationship between a director (based on himself), real events and the actors who play in the director’s films. In the second, journalists from Tehran, one posing as an engineer, travel to a Kurdish village in a remote area to ‘observe’ the mourning rituals for a woman who is supposedly about to die. There is clearly a connection of sorts here, but Kiarostami doesn’t play himself and I think there is a different ‘feel’ in Panahi’s films. Where Kiarostami’s films appear enigmatic and intellectual, Panahi’s films feel more direct. He shows us scenes and leaves us to decide what to make of them via his guidance as a character in the narrative. Early in the narrative there is the suggestion that Behnaz Jafari is a little suspicious of his actions and thinks that this might be a set-up. In fact, the whole film is a set-up, but it seems pretty clear to me what Panahi wants to say.
Jafar Panahi is a deeply humanist director and his ability to make four films while banned shows his commitment and determination. It’s amazing that they turn out so well (the three I’ve seen, at least) and I look forward to whatever appears next.