"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.
  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).

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