“The Golden Fortress” - Satyajit Ray (1974)

As I have mentioned previously, Satyajit Ray was not only a great filmmaker and musical composer, he was also a prolific author of popular fiction [1].  A particular genre interest of Ray’s along this line of creative work was detective fiction, and he published 17 novels and 18 additional stories featuring his canny private investigator Feluda, who served for Ray as his Sherlock Holmes.

One might have expected that this interest of Ray‘s in detective fiction would have overlapped with and spilled over into his cinematic work, but it seems that perhaps the intellectual machinations of detective stories didn’t match particularly well with Ray’s characteristically poignant cinematic expression.  Over his career Ray only made three detective movies – The Zoo (Chiriyakhana, 1967), The Golden Fortress (Sonar Kella, 1974), and Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (Joi Baba Felunath, 1979) – the latter two of which were based on his Feluda novels.  Nevertheless, these three films were all hits with the public, particularly The Golden Fortress [2].

The story of The Golden Fortress concerns events surrounding a young boy’s memories, or dreams, of a past life when he supposedly lived in a golden fortress.  In particular the boy’s vivid memories of seeing many jewels there inspire some criminals to kidnap him in hopes that he will lead them to a lost treasure.  Ray has fashioned this tale as something of a family-oriented adventure, using typecast characters, comedic elements, and some exotic backgrounds to liven up the proceedings.  In addition Ray colored things further by employing some motifs to stimulate the viewer’s fancy:
  • Travel 
    There are many journeys shown, with a number of means of conveyance – taxis, trains, even camels.  Trains, in particular, have always held a fascination for Ray, and perhaps this is the case for most people of his generation: trains were a means for introducing novelty into traditional Indian life, and they symbolized change and excitement.
     
  • Clocks 
    There are numerous images of clocks, and references to time; so time, including travel time, seems to be a subtheme in the story.
     
  • Identity 
    Several characters take on false identities, and it is often the case that people are not who they appear to be to other characters.  So mistaken identity is a common occurrence throughout the tale.
The film’s storyline moves through four stages.

1.  Mukul’s dreams 
The film begins in Calcutta (Kolkata), where six-year-old Mukul Dhar (played by Kusal Chakravarty) upsets his parents with his bizarre behavior at night.  He gets up in the middle of  the night and obsessively draw pictures of peacocks and foreign settings, which he claims he remembers from his past life.  Mukul’s father takes him and his drawings to a parapsychologist, Dr. Hemanga Hajra (Sailen Mukherjee), who notices that Mukul’s drawings of fortresses look like some of those in Rajasthan, in western India.  Hajra suggests that he take Mukul there to see if he can jog the boy’s memory and work out what all these visions mean.  The boy agrees, but unfortunately a journalist was present for this consultation session, and Mukul’s bizarre story, including his claim to remember his past-life home having many jewels stored there, is reported as a curiosity in the city newspaper. 

The newspaper article attracts the attention of the two villains of this story, Amiyanath Burman (Ajoy Banerjee) and Mandar Bose (Kamu Mukherjee), who decide to kidnap Mukul and see if he can lead them to the purported real treasure hidden somewhere.  Ray ensures the viewer is aware of the shadiness of these two scoundrels by averting the camera from showing their faces in the early scenes in which they appear.  The first thing these bumblers do is kidnap the wrong Mukul, when they snatch a kid who happens to have the same name and who is an acquaintance of our Mukul.  Before drugging and turning loose their mistakenly held captive, they do manage to extract from him some important information – that our Mukul has already left Calcutta with Dr. Hajra and is headed for Jodhpur in Rajasthan. 

When our Mukul’s father learns about the other Mukul being abducted, he fears for his own son’s safety and engages private detective Pradosh Mitra (Soumitra Chatterjee), known as Feluda, to go out to Rajasthan and protect his boy from the predators.  What will impress the viewer about Feluda in this film is not so much his powers of ratiocination, but more his keen observation and memory of seemingly insignificant details.

So now we have three groups of figures all making the 1400-mile train trip from Calcutta to Rajasthan:
  • Mukul, the boy with the fantasies about a golden fortress, along with Dr. Hajra, the parapsychologist;
     
  • Burman and Bose, the two crooks looking for a treasure trove of jewels;
     
  • Feluda, who is accompanied by his young cousin and assistant Topshe (Siddartha Chatterjee).
2.  Travel to Rajasthan  
The film now moves into the always fascinating train-travel mode.  Burman and Bose are surprised to discover that Mukul is on the same train with them. So they opportunistically assume false identities and make friends with Mukul and Hajra.  When they get to Jaipur in Rajasthan, they start touring over a local fortress, and when noone is looking, they push Hajra off a high cliff, presumably killing him.  (However, we later see that Hajra, though badly injured, does survive the fall.)  Then when Mukul shows up, they fool the boy into believing that they have magic powers and that they have made that Dr. Hajra disappear and that Burman has now taken on Dr. Hajra’s identity.

Meanwhile Feluda and Topshe, on a following train to Rajasthan, are joined in their train compartment by a jocular and naive novelist known as Jatayu (Santosh Dutta).  Jatayu teams up with Feluda and Topshe, but his presence in this story only serves to provide comic relief.

3.  Travel to Jodhpur 
Once they all, including the badly injured Dr. Hajra, arrive separately in Jodhpur, there are further misrepresentations of identity.  Hajra, fearing that he is still a murder target, is masquerading as a Rajasthani peasant.  Feluda, never having met Hajra, is fooled into believing that Burman is the parapsychologist.  There are further shenanigans, including Bose’s failed attempt to murder Feluda with a poisonous scorpion.  Finally Burman hypnotizes Mukul and manages to learn from the boy that the real fortress they should be looking for is further west of Jodhpur, in the city of Jaisalmer.  So he quickly heads off with Mukul in that direction.

4.  The Golden Fortress at Jaisalmer  
Meanwhile Feluda, Topshe, and Jatayu are overlooking the fort in Jodhpur.  Eventually, however, the hyper-observant Feluda figures out that Burman and Bose are not who they claim to be.  In addition Feluda, despite getting what the viewer knows is misleading information from Bose, intuitively guesses that Burman and Mukul have headed off for Jaisalmer.

This sets the stage for a mad race to the Jaisalmer fortress on the separate parts of (1) Burman and Mukul, (2) Bose, (3) Hajra, and (4) Feluda, with circumstances arising that variously entail travel by car, by train, and by camel riding.  There are more unexpected encounters and violent events along the way, which create a mounting tension and sense of expectation on the part of the viewer.  And eventually the principal figure do come together for a final confrontation in the fortress.  In the end you will find out about the nature of the hidden jewels, and see that, in keeping with family-oriented entertainment, things come to a satisfactory resolution.


Throughout The Golden Fortress Ray adeptly maintains the parallel narrative threads involving the two villains, Hajra, and Feluda’s team.  This effectively maintains a dynamic pace to the film and holds the viewer’s attention.  However, the subtlety of character depiction and development characteristic of Ray’s greatest films is missing in The Golden Fortress, particularly in connection with the exaggerated histrionics associated with the villainous Burman and Bose characters.  And one wonders if the film might have benefited from the inclusion of a significant female character or two in the story (there are none). Nevertheless, Ray does display an impressive expressive facility with a genre, detective fiction, that is distinct from his usual fare. So the film is likely to have considerable appeal to young people and others who like adventure stories of that ilk.
★★

Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “‘The Zoo’ - Satyajit Ray (1967)”, The Film Sufi, (3 May 2018).   
  2. Arup K Chatterjee, “Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella: The train to a golden fortress that wasn't”, daily O, (19 May 2017).   

“The Trial” - Orson Welles (1962)

Franz Kafka’s haunting novel The Trial (1925) is justly famous, but its enigmatic nature left it open to multiple interpretations and presented challenges to any filmmaker wishing to adapt it to the screen. It was left up to an intrepid filmmaker like Orson Welles to take on the challenge with his 1962 film of Kafka’s tale.  Welles had had early commercial success with films like Citizen Kane (1941)  and The Stranger (1946), but he was subsequently more or less banished from Hollywood and was at this point working in Europe under constrained budgets.  For example in connection with this film production, Welles, who usually strove for an expressionistic atmosphere, was not given the finances to construct his own sets and was forced to look for existing premises in which to shoot his dramatic scenes.  He ultimately found locations and settings appropriate for his film in Paris, Milan, Zagreb, and Rome.  For example, he  shot much of the film in the abandoned Parisian train station (now a museum) Gare d’Orsay. Nevertheless and despite these limitations, he came up with a masterwork [1].

Kafka’s story of The Trial was actually written during 1914-15 and, like most of his work, was never fully completed during his lifetime.  His friend Max Brod edited and finished off the manuscript for posthumous publication in 1925.  And Welles then did some of his own reediting by reordering some of the chapters when he wrote his screenplay for the film.

The story of The Trial concerns a young man, Joseph K., who is awakened early one morning and told by the intruding plainclothes police officers that he has been accused of a serious crime.  But K is not informed of what he has been accused, nor is he immediately incarcerated.  He is merely told that he must report to government offices to face the so-far unstated charges. The rest of the story concerns K’s frustrating and ultimately in-vain efforts to find out just what he has been accused of so that he can make efforts to clear himself of the charges.  As such the story has been considered to be an example of absurdist fiction and existentialist narrative, as well as offering a metaphor for man’s obsession with guilt [2,3].

Besides these more personal and individualistic themes, though, many commentators also attribute themes associated with more exterior, social issues to Kafka’s story.  In particular, the depiction of an obscure and oppressive bureaucracy that intrudes into every corner of one’s personal life seems to anticipate for many people the 20th-century horrors of Stalinism, Naziism, and the Holocaust. In fact in this connection, Welles’s, himself, was once under FBI investigation [4].  Even today, there is a pervasive sense of uneasiness concerning how vast and inscrutable organizations may mysteriously use hidden surveillance technologies to invade our privacy and exert control over our lives.

So we may attribute two separate streams of interpretation to The Trial – the existential and the social.  In Welles’s film there is a particular focus on the existential side of things, though at the film’s conclusion there is imagery that invokes horrors on the social side, as well.

Welles said he did not make his film “based on” on Kafka ‘s book, but, rather, “inspired by” Kafka’s work [5].  In particular, Welles altered the character of Joseph K. somewhat, making him more assertive than Kafka’s character, and he also introduced elements of what might be said to be black comedy into his film.  Despite these alterations, though, I would say that Welles’s The Trial very much captures the anxious spirit of Kafka’s work.

Welles achieved these moody effects by means of his characteristic expressionistic mise en scene, which he admitted was inspired by his viewing of the works of early German Expressionistic filmmakers [6].  This involved high-contrast black-and-white photography, as well as many extreme high- and low-angle shots that present the story’s principals from a psychologically disturbing perspective.

The Trial’s narrative meanders through three general phases.

1.  Guilt
In the beginning the focus is on the disturbing and encompassing nature of guilt.  In the opening sequence Joseph K. (played by Anthony Perkins, who had recently starred in another noirish masterpiece Psycho (1960)) is shown (in a carefully crafted tracking shot of 3:40 duration) being awakened in his room at 6am by plainclothesmen.  Even though he doesn’t know what he has been charged with, K acts guiltily.  Later he talks to another boarder in his rooming house, Marika Burstner (Jeanne Moreau), and again their conversation is clouded by concerns of guilt – on this occasion in connection with their tentative romantic relationship.  Then K is shown in his vast, desks-in-a-row office where he is made to feel guilty by insinuations made by his boss when K’s teenage cousin stops by for a visit.  These and other similar scenes all highlight that our lives are infused with guilt.

Indeed our social institutions, particularly our religions, are dominated by notions of guilt.  Humans are called upon to take responsibility for their actions that have negative outcomes, and the principal mechanism to place a behavior-modifying burden on people for these unwanted actions is guilt.  In addition, humans are presumably the only animals that know that death is inevitable for everyone.  But we don’t know why we are faced with this punishment.  So our institutions tend to proclaim that we all must be intrinsically guilty for this situation – we are all guilty at birth.  But why?  This is the question the underlies Joseph K.’s situation in The Trial, and its understanding points to the idea that guilt is a man-made construction [3].

2.  The Law and Its Execution
The second phase of the film shifts the main focus from personal guilt to an immersion into a vast and unknowably labyrinthine legal system – the instrument for adjudicating and punishing guilt.  While attending an opera, K is interrupted and escorted to an obscure courtroom building where a hearing on his case is being conducted in a crowded auditorium.  K ascends to the stand and makes an impassioned speech dismissing the still-unstated charges against him and then walks out of the room.  So K is shown not to be a passive victim but an assertive responder, if only he could figure out where he stands in the legal system.

Later K’s uncle Max takes him to his lawyer friend, the advocate Albert Hastler (Orson Welles).  But K is distracted by Hastler’s beautiful assistant, Leni (Romy Schneider), who tries to seduce K and who also urges K to confess to his guilt.

Subsequently K returns to the courtroom where he had made his speech and is surprised to find it empty.  The only person around is the beautiful wife of the courtroom guard, Hilda (Elsa Martinelli), who also offers herself to him without qualification.

When K later does talk to the advocate Hastler, he soon sees that the advocate is a cynical manipulator and is of no use in connection with K’s legal difficulties.  So K eventually dismisses Hastler, but before he leaves the office, Leni urges him to visit the official court portraitist, Titorelli, who supposedly knows all the ins and outs of the legal system and the people at the top.

On the way to visit Titorelli, K is hounded by a frenetic pack of giggling and laughing young girls who seem to be aggressively after him.  Titorelli’s room turns out be a small, slatted enclosure, through the slats of which the loudly cackling pack of young girls can be seen and heard.  All of this creates a claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere for the conversation between Titorelli that ensues. 
With his insider knowledge Titorelli explains to K that there are three possible types of acquittal:
  • definite acquittal – this is a theoretical designation that nobody knows how to achieve.
  • ostensible acquittal – rearrests for the same charges are inevitable, and one will be involved in an endless cycle of court cases.
  • indefinite deferment – one’s court case will get tied up in a literally endless sequence of proceedings  
K departs from Titorelli’s premises under a cloud and hurries down a surrealistic slatted corridor  with the shrieking girls in pursuit.

3.  Closing In
Commanding voices now direct K through further mazes until he reaches the basement of a cathedral, where a priest emphasizes to him the hopelessness of his situation.  Then Hastler mysteriously shows up, and he tells him about the cryptic and fatalistic “Before the Law” parable that is a metaphor for the eternal mystery of every man’s ultimately doomed fate [7].

Finally, K is grabbed by two rough-looking police guards, who usher K to the outskirts of town and down into a large hole in the ground, where they apparently intend to execute him with a large butcher’s knife.  With K lying submissively on the ground between them, they lean over their victim and hesitantly pass the knife back and forth between them, apparently waiting for K to do the job himself.  In Kafka’s story, K is knifed “like a dog” at this point, but in the film K just laughs derisively at the two men, who then scramble up out of the hole.  Once out on top, they toss a pack of dynamite down into the hole where K is.  K grabs the bomb and throws it, but we immediately see a massive explosion that apparently destroys everything in the vicinity.  The final images are those of the mushroom cloud from the explosion.


That final shot of the mushroom cloud was Welles’s way of reminding us that we live under the cloud of likely nuclear annihilation.  In other words, we face a self-imposed death sentence, the current collective mindfulness of which is much lower today, by the way, than it was back in 1962, even though its danger and likelihood is undiminished from that time.  This is something, like the horrors of the Holocaust, which Kafka also could not have anticipated in his day, but the universality of this deranged death sentence makes it particularly appropriate to connect with Kafka’s tale.

Another interesting subtheme of Kafka’s that appears throughout the film concerns the take on femininity in the story.  Many of the women that K encounters – Marika Burstner, Leni, Hilda, and the pack of young girls – are aggressively seductive and represent lascivious distractions from K’s serious concerns.  In casting Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli for these cameo roles, Welles was presenting some of the most alluring feminine European movie stars to portray this notion of feminine distraction and devotion to sensual physicality.  Their presence in the film is likely to give the viewer a different feeling than what one probably gets from reading Kafka’s story.

So we can say that Welles did inject references to significant social themes in his rendition of The Trial.  But nevertheless and as mentioned above, the principal focus and aesthetic virtue of his film concerns his presentation of Kafka’s existentialist theme.  This was accomplished by means of Welles’s well-developed film noir mise en scene, which he had honed in connection with his earlier works along these noirish lines – The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Touch of Evil (1958).  But The Trial represented the culmination of Welles’s film-noir aesthetics.

We can observe that the film noir is actually the ideal mode for Kafka, because it employs emphatic expressionist techniques to convey paranoia, hopelessness, and fear of incarceration – just what Kafka was talking about [6].  As filmmaker and writer Paul Schrader remarked regarding the aesthetics of film noir [8]:
“The actors and setting are often given equal emphasis. . . . When the environment is given an equal or greater weight than the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood.”
Certainly this is the case in The Trial, where Welles’s expressionistic settings and camera arrangements constantly impose a threatening surroundings on the beleaguered Joseph K.  The positive effects of this moody atmosphere more than compensate for some minor deficiencies in the finished product.  The background music, while often evocative, is sometimes too jazzy and distracting. And the dubbed dialogue (Welles is said to have used his own voice to dub eleven of the characters’ spoken lines [9]) is sometimes unclear and too rushed. But overall, Welles’s The Trial is a masterpiece.  In fact even though Welles’s Citizen Kane has often been ranked as the greatest film of all time [10], Welles, himself, regarded The Trial as his best work [5].  And it truly is worthy of being considered a film classic.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “The Trial”, RogerEbert.com, (25 February 2000).  
  2. Jean-Philippe Deranty, “Existentialist Aesthetics”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (17 February 2015).   
  3. Temenuga Trifonova, “The Trial”, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 38, Senses of Cinema, (February 2006).    
  4. Cristina Vatulescu, “The Medium on Trial: Orson Welles Takes on Kafka and Cinema”, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2013).    
  5. Huw Wheldon, "Orson Welles on THE TRIAL", Interviewed on the BBC in 1962, Wellesnet, (1962).   
  6. Jeffrey Adams, “Orson Welles's ‘The Trial:’ Film Noir and the Kafkaesque”, College Literature, Vol. 29, No. 3, Literature and the Visual Arts (Summer, 2002), pp. 140-157.
  7. Franz Kafka, “Before the Law”, (translation by Ian Johnston), Franz Kafka online, (1915).   
  8. Paul Schrader, “notes on film noir”, Film Comment, Vol. 8, No. 1 (SPRING 1972), pp. 8-13.     
  9. “The Trial (1962 film)”, Wikipedia, (30 August 2018).    
  10. “Sight and Sound: Critics’ Top Ten Poll”, Wikipedia, (26 August 2018).    

"3 Faces" - Jafar Panahi (2018)

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is famous not only for his outstanding films but also for his heroic struggles to freely express himself in the face of an oppressive dictatorship.  After the Iranian government violently suppressed the Green Movement’s peaceful protests of the controversial 2009 Presidential elections, Panahi (along with other associates, including Mohammad Rasoulof) was arrested for trying to make a documentary film concerning those events.  In 2010 he was convicted of essentially treasonous behaviour and sentenced to six years in prison and also given a 20-year ban on engaging in any filmmaking activities and on leaving the country.  Nevertheless and despite the severity of this sentence, Panahi has somehow managed to continue making films, albeit under extremely constrained conditions.  His recent films This is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2014), and Taxi Tehran (2015) were basically all shot within single living enclosures (in Taxi Tehran’s case, inside a single taxicab).  All three of these films were interesting not only for their subject matter but also as experiments in novel cinematic expression.

Now Panahi has come out with a fourth film since his 2010 arrest, 3 Faces (Se Rokh, 2018).  This features a wider degree of spatial latitude, presumably because Panahi’s six-year prison sentence, which was apparently served as a house interest, had now come to an end.  Thus the restrictions on Panahi’s movements had now apparently been relaxed somewhat, and he could now move around a little.  So 3 Faces concerns a road trip that Panahi and a friend take up into the northwestern Iranian province of Azerbaijan (which is where Panahi grew up).  The film was presented at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where its script written by Panahi and Nader Saeivar was given the award for Best Screenplay [1]. 

Many Iranian films, particularly those of Panahi as well as those of his senior colleague Abbas Kiastomi under whom he once served, have a semi-documentary feel to them, which some critics have likened to neorealism.  And 3 Faces is no exception on this score.  But Panahi tends to go further in this respect and intentionally blurs the boundary between narrative fiction and documented reality, with most of the characters, including Panahi, playing themselves in the story that is told.  So the viewer is sometimes left wondering if he or she is watching a documentary about Panahi or a fictional story about Panahi – or even a documentary about Panahi making a film about Panahi.

The story of 3 Faces begins in highly dramatic fashion with Panahi hurriedly driving his well-known actress friend Behnaz Jafari (played by herself) up into Azerbaijan, a northwest Iranian province where the natives speak the Turkic Azeri language.  The two travellers are responding to a self-made video that Panahi had received from a young woman, Marziyeh Rezaei (playing herself), that was intended for Ms. Jafari and which expressed her intention to commit suicide.  In fact the selfie video, which was shot in a single take, appears to show the girl actually committing suicide by hanging herself from mountainside tree branch. 

Ms. Jafari is beside herself with concern and is desperately hoping that the video she has seen was artificially staged by the clearly distraught girl in order to arouse her concern.  What has driven Marziyeh to such desperation is that her passionate dreams of self-fulfilment are being thwarted by her conservative family.  She fervently wants to become an actress, and she has been accepted to study in a prestigious drama school.  But her family thinks that the idea of becoming an “entertainer” is shameful and has insisted that Marziyeh accept an arranged marriage and resign herself to being an ordinary village housewife.  Marziyeh believes that if Ms. Jafari, who is a well-known TV and film actress and therefore a celebrity, could intercede on her behalf, then she might be able to persuade her family that acting can be a respectable profession for a woman.  But as Marziyeh explains in her video, her repeated failures to get Behnaz to respond to her phone calls has driven the young girl to a suicidal state.

So the stage is set for melodrama.  But when Panahi and Jafari reach Marziyeh’s home town of Mianeh (which is also Panahi’s home town), things slow down, and the film takes on a more leisurely tone as it explore the film’s larger themes [2].  As the two visitors look around for Marziyeh, they have a number of encounters with the provincial locals, which give Panahi an opportunity to take a satirical look at  some aspects of traditional Iranian ways of thinking on the local level.  It turns out that Jafari’s suspicions were correct: Marziyeh’s suicide was staged.  But the issues that led Marziyeh to desperation are still there. Marziyeh has fled her family’s home and is still missing. 

As the characters Panahi and Jafari explore the area looking for Marziyeh, Panahi, the filmmaker, explores some other issues in his usual oblique (by necessity) manner:
  • Truth 
    The question of how the people know what is true is always an issue in Iran, and this film alludes to that in several places.  One instance, of course. is the truth of Marziyeh’s suicide, which turns out to be false.  But the issue of truth is generalized when Jafari, questioning the veracity of Marziyeh’s selfie video, wonders aloud whether she is actually an uninformed participant in a fiction film that is being made by Panahi about suicide.  The viewer will naturally reflect on the meta-level ramifications of Jafari’s speculation.    

    But in any society, the approach to a true understanding of things will be severely hindered if one-half of the population, i.e. the women, are restricted from expressing themselves.
     
  • Masculinity and Femininity 
    There are several encounters with the villagers that display some common attitudes of these people towards gender.  On one occasion they were stopped on a narrow mountain road by an injured bull that blocked the way.  The farmer who owned the bull sang the praises of his bull’s virility because of its capability of impregnating ten cows in one night. For him such a display of virility was a matter of high honour.  They have another encounter with a local who holds his son’s circumcision-removed and preserved foreskin to have near sacred importance.  This man also dreams of his son emulating in real-life the film roles of old masculine film idol Behrouz Vossoughi.  Vossoughi was famous for his roles in stories of revenge and hatred (e.g. Qeysar (1969) and Tangsir (1974)) [4].  What he wants is for his son to be a “real man” and carry out vengeful attacks of retribution the way Vossoughi did in his movies.  As for women, their proper role is to serve in the home as housewives – as violently expressed by Marziyeh’s brother.
Panahi and Jafari eventually do find out that Marziyeh is hiding out in the relatively remote home of an old woman named Shahrzad, who was an active actress, dancer, and poet before the 1979 Iranian revolution but who dropped out of sight after the revolution and is now a neglected and poverty-stricken recluse.
 
Although Shahrzad’s face is never seen in this film, she is an important figure thematically, and she is one of the “3 Faces” (along with Marziyeh and Behnaz Jafari) referred to in the film’s title.  Her character in this film is, like all the characters in this story, undoubtedly a reference to another real person – in this case, Kobra Amin Sa’idi.  She was an important poet, dancer, and actress in the 1960s and 70s who performed under the stage name “Shahrzad” – for example in Qeysar (1969) and Dash Akol (1971).  But the new and oppressive revolutionary culture had no place for her womanly artistry [3].  A documentary account of her life, then and now, has been presented in the film Shahrzaad's Tale (2015).

Eventually Marziyeh and Behnaz do hook up with each other, but the film’s ultimate resolution at the end is not entirely clear.  The options available to Marziyeh are uncertain, at best.

Panahi tells this tale in a leisurely fashion, with many reaction shots, some of them in the form of long takes to convey the mood of the of the onscreen observer/listener (Jafari or Panahi).  Note in this connection that Panahi’s three preceding films, shot as they were under severe restrictions due to his sentencing, all had an unavoidable feeling of confinement to  them.  Here in 3 Faces, though, with Panahi now afforded greater leeway to move around, one might expect the claustrophobic aura to be significantly lessened.  Nevertheless, even though 3 Faces does have many exterior shots, including many shots of the road as seen from looking outside of Panahi’s vehicle, there is still an overall visual feeling of confinement to the film.  So we are given the sense that our pursuers of truth in this story are considerably restricted with respect to the reality they can observe.

If we reflect on the “3 Faces” presented in this film, we can see that Panahi has given us three different era-dependent perspectives on womanhood in Iran:
  • Shahrzad (the past)
    She represents the pre-revolutionary period of Iran in the 1960s and 70s when women were starting to be given more equitable treatment and opportunities in society.  Shahrzad, herself, was an expressive embodiment of this opening-up.  The fact that her face is totally effaced from the current society is a grim comment on what has been lost since that era.
     
  • Behnaz Jafari (the present) 
    She represents the more restricted present era, in which a few women can achieve prominence if they manage to appear frequently in the media and toe the line.
     
  • Marziyeh (the future) 
    Although Marziyeh is educated,  creative (witness her selfie suicide video), and courageous, her opportunities remain restricted by strong prejudices still rooted in traditional Iranian society.  She represents the uncertain future. 
We can only hope that expressive voices like Panahi’s can help generate a future that will afford the Marziyehs of this world the opportunities they seek.  Then a film like this can have a happy ending.
★★★
                                                 
Notes:
  1. Jessica Kiang, “Film Review: ‘3 Faces’”, Variety, (1 July 2018).   
  2. Geoff Andrew, “Cannes first look: Three Faces’s road trip finds Jafar Panahi on familiar ground”, Sight & Sound, (15 May 2018).   
  3. “Poetry, or the Power of Existence: Shahin Parhami’s ‘Shahrzaad’s Tale’“, Ajam Media Collective, (2 August 2017).   
  4. But Behrouz Vossoughi played a somewhat more reflective and tragic figure in Dash Akol (1971).

Benjamin Gilmour

Films of Benjamin Gilmour:
  • Jirga - Benjamin Gilmour (2018)

“Jirga” - Benjamin Gilmour (2018)

Jirga (2018) is an Australian-made drama set in strife-torn Afghanistan that covers some issues associated with guilt from different perspectives.  How this film came to be made is actually an interesting story in its own right.  Writer-director-cameraman Benjamin Gilmour’s only other film, Son of a Lion (2007), was shot and set in Pakistan, and he intended to have Jirga shot in Pakistan, too.  However, once he and his crew started shooting in Pakistan, the Pakistani government’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) agency read the script and decided to revoke permission to shoot the film in that country [1].  This led Gilmour’s Pakistan-based principal funder to withdraw his financial support for the production.  Left without a crew and financial backing, Gilmour chose to shift to Afghanistan and rely on crowd-funding to shoot the film on-the-fly and under dangerous, sometimes life-threatening, conditions. 

The story that was filmed to make Jirga concerns a young Australian soldier, Mike Wheeler (played by Sam Smith), who returns to Afghanistan on his own after having served there three years earlier in the Australian military peacekeeping forces.  His return trip to Afghanistan is a personal mission and the  key to this film, but it takes some time in the telling of this tale for the reasons behind this mission to be revealed.  It is soon revealed, however, that Mike is carrying tens of thousands of dollars in US currency that are presumably to be used as an instrument on this mission.  It is only later revealed in the film that three years earlier Mike had accidentally killed an unarmed Afghan civilian, and he has returned now to seek out the family of his victim and to express his repentance for what he did.

The story of Mike’s mission is presented in five rather disjointed segments, the disjointedness of which we can probably attribute to the difficult shooting circumstance that Gilmour and his production team faced in Afghanistan.  (For example, Gilmour apparently shot the film himself with just a single hand-held camera that he had picked up in Pakistan [2]). 

1.  Kabul
At the outset of the film, the sullen and swarthy Mike Wheeler is shown having recently arrived in Kabul and looking to hire a taxi driver to take him on a long journey south to a village near the city of Kandahar.  This is a difficult task for two reasons.  For one thing, the Kandahar area is held by the violent Taliban insurgents, and none of the taxi drivers is willing to drive there.  In addition Mike doesn’t speak the native Pashtun language, and the drivers hardly speak any English.  So negotiating anything with a taxi driver is extremely difficult. 

Gilmour’s mise-en-scene concentrates the focalization of the film almost exclusively on Mike, so the viewer is only privy to what Mike sees and hears.  Thus, although there is quite a bit of Pashtun heard on the soundtrack, there are no subtitles provided; so the viewer is likely to be just as ignorant as Mike concerning what is being said [3].

Eventually, Mike does manage to hire a taxi driver to take him south, without specifying precisely where he intends to go.

2.  The Taxi Trip
The next segment shows Mike and the taxi driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) heading south through the picturesque mountainous landscape.   And despite the language barrier, they gradually get to know each other and become friends.  Eventually and after much effort, Mike does manage to persuade his reluctant driver to take him into the dangerous Taliban-infested area,  Although the story seems to dawdle during this part of the film, this sequence, which depicts the universality of human companionship, despite differences in language, customs, religion, etc., and which is presented in beautiful natural surroundings, is one of the more appealing parts of the  film.

3.  Lost in the Wilderness

After considerable travel, their taxi is eventually stopped on the road at a Taliban checkpoint, and Mike just barely manages to escape capture by running off into the barren wilderness.  This extended sequence shows Mike utterly alone and wandering without food and water under the hot sun through the desert-like terrain.  Again the narrative seems to slow down even more, although the shots of the naturally scenic landscape in the background are dazzling.

Mike finally drops down on the ground and loses consciousness.  He is apparently close to death.

4.  A Taliban Captive

But the Taliban happen to discover Mike just in time and take him captive, and now the pace of the film picks up again.  Mike’s captors brutally subject him to severe beatings, and then they coldly discuss what to do with him – with the presumption that it is probably best to kill him.  However, one of the Taliban guerrillas can speak some English, and Mike finally has the chance to explain to them what his mission is about and that it is not intended to be a threat to the Taliban.  He wants to seek his victim’s family and offer them all his money as recompense for what he had done.  But his Taliban captors  dismissively explain to him that giving money to his victim’s family members would just be seen as selling a life for money and would therefore be unacceptable to any true Muslim.  So, to them, his mission was doomed to be futile anyway.

Although it still seems that most of the Taliban in this troop want to see Mike put to death, their senior leader is mysteriously fascinated by the altruistic extravagance of Mike’s mission.  He orders his men to escort Mike to the vicinity of his victim’s village, which does not happen to be under Taliban control, and let him go there on his own.

5.  The Village Jirga
Mike now enters the village of his victim and abandons the idea of offering “bribery” money to his victim’s family (a widow and two children) for the expiation of his sins.  Mike is quickly incarcerated, and a village jirga (a council of village elders) is summoned to determine his fate.  What transpires in the end is an  intriguing but debatable form of justice, and there is some doubt in my mind as to whether anything conclusive or uplifting has been achieved.  Since the film’s basic themes concern guilt, repentance, and justice all seen from a cross-cultural or universal perspective, the way the film ends was something of a disappointment for me.


We know that Mike feels very guilty about what he did, but he is so taciturn that we never know about the nature of his repentance or what he conceives to be appropriate atonement.  In addition, what is the nature of forgiveness that he seeks, and what is the nature of forgiveness that his victims are capable of?  It is generally accepted in the Abrahamic religions that God, or Allah, will fully forgive a sinner who truly repents his or her wrongdoings. But this is a matter between the human sinner and God, Who can unerringly assess the true nature of the sinners repentance.  It is much more ambiguous, even in these same religious cultures, concerning the degree to which religious humans will forgive the sins of their fellow humans. 

And the film’s coverage of this issue does not offer much insight. Are we only left with the notion that “two wrongs don’t make a right”?  And the mechanism by which the village jirga executes its justice in the end also seems arbitrary, at best.  So although there is a certain degree of rapprochement, or “coming together”, across cultural disparities in the film, the extent to which any common understanding is actually achieved is unclear.

On the production level, I also had some misgivings concerning some aspects of the film.  Although we have to grant director Benjamin Gilmour considerable latitude in view of the difficult production conditions he faced, nevertheless it is necessary to warn prospective viewers that (a) the almost-continuous shaky hand-held camera movement and (b) the numerous jarring jump-cuts throughout the film are a constant disturbance to one’s viewing enjoyment of the film.

So overall, we could say that Jirga does have some fascinating moments, even if the ride is definitely bumpy along the way.
½

Notes:
  1. Benjamin Gilmour, Cameras and Kalashnikovs: The Making of Jirga, Benjamin Gilmour Films, (29 May 2018). 
  2. Richard Gray, “Review: Jirga”, thereelbits.com, (18 June 2018).  
  3. Later, when Mike is captured by the Taliban, there is some brief focalization on his captors, and there are some subtitles concerning what they are saying.