AFI Fest 2018: 3 Faces, by Scott Nye
Late in Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, the fourth film he’s made in Iran while banned from filmmaking, Panahi (playing himself) encounters three men on the edge of a small village he’s been visiting. They dispense some tips for sleeping rough in the area, as Panahi has been sheltering in his car rather than risk anyone else’s safety by staying with them, but he largely waves away their wisdom. “City folk never learn,” one remarks to the other as they walk away. “A strong hailstorm would show him.” “Careful what you say,” says another. “It would ruin our crops.” “Even so, it would show him,” replies the first.
Panahi’s was banned for filmmaking following several rounds of criticism from Iranian authorities, which came to a head with his 2006 film Offside. That film tackled head on the ban women face from attending soccer matches, and follows a girl’s attempt to disguise herself as a boy to attend a match. This strain of senseless punishment, of preventing freedoms out of a desire to maintain national appearances, has obviously come to the fore in Panahi’s life. Even his ability to make films under the ban is a continuation of that, as his arrest caused international controversy that the government seems reluctant to repeat. To do so again would be ruining their crops out of spite for another, so to speak.
It’s a topic that runs through the film, which finds Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari seek out the fate of a young woman who apparently hung herself on camera and sent the video to Jafari. This being an Iranian art film, appearances are not necessarily what they seem. Are Panahi and Jafari aware of that? They spend a great deal of time dissecting the video for evidence of editing, Panahi concluding that no one in so remote a place would have the skills to edit it closely enough to fool them. But, well, appearances can be deceiving.
In the video, the girl talks about the limited options she faces, how she desperately wants to be an actress despite the obstacles her parents throw in her way. When Panahi and Jafari arrive in the village, the residents can’t wait to tell them how much of a nuisance this girl is, how her dreams disrupt the fabric of their society. They visit her family, including her brother, who’s so furious over her determination he’s practically ready to take a swing at these total strangers for their distant involvement. Nobody seems that concerned that she’s been missing for days. And every element of their trip, from the villagers to the very road that only allows one car to pass at a time, seems to insist they just leave things as they are.
It’s not the cruelty of punishment, as such, but the punishment motivated by cruelty. Laws enforced solely to establish power over another person. What else kept this woman down on the farm? What else keeps Panahi detained and theoretically unproductive? For that matter, what else defines the ownership the villagers feel over Jafari, and their frequent confusion between her as a person and her as the character they know on television? It all comes back to a sense of ownership, that lives are decided by others, and any attempt to step outside of that definition will be countered.
Unsurprisingly, the limitations Panahi has faced since his arrest have had an effect on his films’ aesthetics. Often defined by their means rather than their expressive quality, they’re shot on consumer-grade cameras from limited angles. His last film, Taxi, was filmed entirely with dash-mounted cameras, allowing him to drive through the streets of Tehran relatively undetected. Panahi and cinematographer Amin Jafari build on the lessons learned there, using Panahi’s SUV as a mobile camera, tracking him and (actress) Jafari through this village and around the mountain with grace and subtlety. Some shots feel like steadicam, only to reveal the vehicle’s presence, guiding us all along.
It’s an impressive integration between consumer technology and truly graceful directing. 3 Faces continues Panahi’s interrogation of senseless authoritarianism, continually finding new corners to dig out and bring to bear. Gracefully-executed, one can also appreciate it purely as mystery, with the final suggestion that solving does not equate to justice, but one might find a bit of freedom.