Jafar Panahi was born in 1960 and began making his own amateur films as a teenager. In 1994, he was the assistant director on Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, and the following year he released his debut directorial effort, The White Balloon, which was scripted by Kiarostami. The Mirror (Ayneh) is Panahi’s second film and was released in 1997.
In order to appreciate The Mirror, it is useful to reflect on certain conditions of the Iranian film scene. Films about children have a universal appeal, but with the social restrictions in place since the 1979 Iranian revolution, making movies about children in Iran has a number of practical advantages. Children are always credited with more innocence than adults and can be allowed to display a wide range of emotions without suspicion -- and filming them on the street is easier, too. And, further, the more limited spatial horizons of a child enable the resource-constricted filmmaker to present a plausible story context with children that does not seem artificially reduced in scope. Not surprisingly, there have been many films made in Iran depicting a child’s point of view, with Kiarostami’s 1987 film, Khane-ye Doust Kodjast? (Where Is My Friend’s Home?), being a popular early example. Panahi’s first film, the Kiarostami-scripted White Balloon, was another offering in this genre and depicted a seven-year-old girl’s afternoon-long efforts in the city streets to buy a goldfish in preparation for the Iranian new year festivities. Notwithstanding The White Balloon’s undeniable charm, there are limits to how many times this kind of thing can be represented successfully on the screen without becoming tedious. So when Panahi set out to make another child-focussed film, he was working in a field that had already been richly mined.
The Mirror begins in a fashion similar to other child-focussed films: as school lets out, a young girl, again about seven years old, is seen waiting for her mother to come and pick her up. As it turns out, the mother doesn’t arrive at the appointed time, and the entire plot is simply about the girl’s efforts to get home. So it looks like another White Balloon, and in fact the lead in this film, Mina Mohammad Khani, is the younger sister of the girl in White Balloon, Ayda Mohammad Khani. But as I will discuss here, The Mirror is significantly different and innovative, not only from that previous film but also from Kiarostami’s well-known style of filmmaking.
Almost immediately, we can see an important difference from Kiarostami: the filmmaking style. While Kiarostami typically uses austere, long-duration static camera shots of people in close conversation, Panahi opens up this film with a spectacular three-and-half-minute panning shot that makes a full 360-degree circuit around a traffic circle. Later on, there are other carefully crafted, long-lasting shots showing the girl wandering in and out of closeup, sometimes disappearing in crowd scenes, and then reappearing, still in perfect frame. Contemporary Iranian films are sometimes likened to the Italian neo-realist period of the 1940s and 1950s, and that comparison perhaps conjures up images of rough-and-ready, documentary-style films seeking to capture more of the “real world” by disregarding professional narrative film craftsmanship. But if you look at those original Italian neo-realist films, they do use narrative filmmaking techniques quite skilfully. This, however, is not the case with the more clumsy offerings of Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf, who are sometimes critically celebrated as modern Iranian neo-realist equivalents. But Panahi is different; he does in fact display an admirable level of craftsmanship that must belie a considerable amount of planning and setup. You can be sure that the random conversations overheard in the background and on the buses of The Mirror are under his control. Yet the film is still thoroughly immersed in the noisy and intense hustle and bustle of modern Tehran, one of the most intense cities in the world. This is neo-realism with authorial control, not just random "reality TV".
But almost exactly halfway through The Mirror, just as one has gotten lulled into Panahi’s meandering narrative of the lost girl trying to find the right bus, something strange and unexpected happens. The young actress pulls off her costume, looks straight into the camera, and announces that she is not going to continue acting in this movie. The fourth wall has suddenly been shattered. When this happens the cinematography suddenly changes dramatically, too. Immediately, we are subjected to jerky, hand-held shots (the camera had been perfectly steady up to this point). The film stock looks grainy, the colour balance of the shots is off, and the shots are no longer framed and in focus. Now we are shown what a truly ad hoc style of filmmaking really does look like, and the contrast is striking. During these hand-held shots, Panahi, himself, is shown with his crew trying to coax Mina back into resuming her role (but she refuses). Since Mina still has her radio-controlled microphone clipped on, the film crew at this point attempts to keep the filmmaking process going and continue filming her (now “real”) journey home. As the film proceeds from here, it once again returns to the carefully crafted filmmaking and tracking shots of before. But this time the subject of that filmmaking is no longer cooperating, and the filmmakers struggle to keep her in view as she wanders down the street, often out of view and sometimes disappearing into random taxis. Many times Mina is now out-of-view, and all we see are random scenes of traffic congestion as the search for her in the crowd continues. Even the sound sometimes drops out as her clipped-on microphone is accidentally switched off at times.
How much of this actress’s rebellion and breakout is authentic, or is it staged? This has been debated by critics, but my guess is that the whole thing has been carefully contrived. But what does it all mean? For the second half of the film, there is now a tension between fiction and “reality”, and one struggles to find the boundaries between the two. The “real” Mina is not a first-grader, but is a second-grader; she is not lost, but now knows her way home (sort of). But the differences are not that great, and one can’t quite be sure what is true and what isn’t. Panahi seems to be playing with the narrative confines of the child-focussed neo-realist genre and perhaps reminding us to reflect on the true nature of the social cityscape that he is presenting. That Tehran “reality” is fascinating, and, in my view, authentic, even if crafted. We see a young romantic couple on a bus, who must occupy separate, gender-specific sections and can only shyly eye each other from a distance. We listen to an old woman complain about being neglected by her family; and we hear other women complain about their marital circumstances. For the men in the film, the primary interest and pleasure is listening vicariously to a radio broadcast of the Iranian soccer team playing South Korea. There are no villains here, though. We just have people trying to handle the vicissitudes of society in the big city.
What, actually, is meant by or supposed to represent the "mirror"? I’m not sure, but since the very nature of film expression has been called into question, perhaps the mirror is just the film, itself. But it's not really a just mirror; it's a picture that's even better than a mirror. Perhaps you will have some good suggestions here.
Overall, this film is fascinating, but not as brilliant as Panahi’s following film, The Circle. In general, stories and films that become self-reflective can offer intellectual challenges but can also have difficulty sustaining our interest over the full course of the narrative. The Mirror is nevertheless something of a cinematic tour de force and indicative of an important figure to watch on the Iranian film scene.