What would you do if you were a celebrity who receives a suicide note on video, from a stranger? That’s where Jafar Panahi’s 2018 film, 3 Faces, which is now streaming on Hotstar, begins. You would perhaps assume you are in for a thriller. But this Iranian film, despite that beginning, has other ideas. It turns into what appears to be a documentary, and yet, you can tell some of it is staged and the filmmaker makes no effort to hide this. If you have watched recent Iranian films, this may sound familiar. It is the Iranian New Wave.
I became acquainted with this cinematic movement and this veteran director’s work some years ago through his 2015 film, Taxi (also streaming on the same OTT platform along with nearly his entire filmography), and walked out with a feeling of pure joy. Shot almost entirely from inside a taxi in Tehran, it is a sharp, funny, and poignant piece of art. But above all, it is inspiring — in its own right, and also because of the unique circumstances under which it was made. Panahi was, at the time he made Taxi, and still is, under a long-term filmmaking ban in his own country, in addition to not being allowed to travel outside of it. And yet, he continues his splendid work!
Much like his contemporaries in the Iranian New Wave, and his mentor, the great Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi’s films are rich with humanism. They are also mostly a curious mix of fiction and docu-realism, with lines so blurred it’s hard to tell what is scripted and what isn’t — even the actors often play a version of themselves. These films are full of compassion and poetry, and lend new meaning to everyday details. In 3 Faces, for instance, there is a sequence in which an old man tells the story of his son’s circumcision to a guest. The way this man stops midway and tries to make generic small talk when his wife comes by with refreshments, and waits for her to leave to continue his story, is so gently funny. It’s a far cry from the sort of loud humour we are used to in our cinema. You can tell the director is amused by this man, but isn’t disdainful of him.
Another interesting aspect of Panahi’s work — including in 3 Faces — is how he deals with the condition of women in modern-day Iran. The three faces of the title belong to three actresses from different eras: A former actress living in obscurity, representing the past; a popular actress of the present, who receives the aforementioned video; and the desperate aspiring actress who sends this video and stands for an uncertain future. The film opens with a close-up of the face of this last, young Marziyeh, as she records her suicide note/video on a phone. At a critical point, it cuts to that of Behnaz Jafari, the contemporary Iranian actress who plays herself. The camera holds the close-up of her face for most of the spell-binding sequence that follows. We never see the face of the third actress, Shahrzad, who is ostracised from the village she lives in for the sin of having been an ‘entertainer’.
But these same villagers are only too thrilled to have ‘Madam Jafari’ visit them, for it gives them a sense of importance (though they are openly disappointed to learn that she and Panahi — who accompanies her — are not there to make their problems disappear). They also simultaneously abuse Marziyeh’s ambitions to enter the conservatory in Tehran and become an actress.
None of this is drilled into us. At the same time, it’s not exactly hard to connect the dots either. A one-liner best illustrates this. The female character narrates an incident of the men in the village telling her, “That’s not for women.” It works as a commentary on what women in Iran — and only too many places around the world — have to deal with. But it also belongs in the film, in that character’s life.
There are several long static shots in 3 Faces of people walking either away from or towards the camera. The film ends with one such shot of a character walking away into the distance as the camera looks on from inside a car (with a cracked windshield that is, incidentally, a lovely subtle continuation of the previous scene). This character is joined by another and they look on at a truck passing by that’s carrying animals —which is again a throwback to an older scene. Panahi leaves us with an open ending, while being one that’s filled with hope. Hope for these, and by extension, all women. Is there truly hope? Who knows? But at least we are thinking about it.