Saturday, December 14, 2013

I won't tell your story any more! (Films - The Mirror (1997) dir. Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian director who has been sentenced to 6 years in jail and banned for making films for 20 years because of the opinions expressed in his films.  He has defied his country's authority by continuing to make the films - This is Not a Film (2011) a fascinating cinematic diary of his arrest and Closed Curtain (2013), which I have not seen.  I was introduced to his work when my friend Sheila hosted her fantastic Iranian Film Blogathon in 2011.  The Mirror (1997, available through Netflix) is Panahi's second feature film.  It features Mina Mohammadkhani, a 7-year-old willful powerhouse of talent, playing a girl her own age (Baharan) who, when her mother does not pick her up at school, is determined to find her own way home through the traffic clogged streets of Tehran.  In some ways this film reminds me of Woody Allen's films about the cities he loves - Manhattan and Midnight in Paris - but the film's esthetic is rougher, with a feeling of capturing real moments.  Its point of view is more subversive, as I'll explain in a minute.

I loved the film first for the picture of everyday life of a tumultuous city that is unfamiliar to me. Panahi gives me access to a place he knows intimately, not only visually, but through a multi-layered soundscape.  Baharan meets many adults, each of whom she tries to enlist to help her find her way home.  On a city bus, the camera sometimes rests on Baharan, but then it pans, following her point of view, as the soundtrack focuses first on an older woman complaining about her children, then on a woman reading the palm of a woman next to her (the subjects are always women since they sit in a separate section of the bus from the men).  Mixed in is a soccer match between Iran and Korea, giving the film a feeling of real time as it creates a hyperactive, unrelenting rhythm, and a slightly threatening undercurrent.  

Then, about halfway through The Mirror, the young actress rebels.  She doesn't want to do the film anymore, she says.  She doesn't want to be told what to say and when to cry.  She's going home!  With the microphone still on her, the film crew continues to follow the young actress as she negotiates the streets, in a plot parallel to that of the character she played, to find her own home. At some point it seemed to me, we were once again watching a film that Panahi created - had he seized on a fortuitous accident and created from it or had this been his planned script all along?  Were we just seeing street scenes that the crew managed to capture or highly crafted art that simply felt accidental?  In the West, this idea would simply be a brilliant use of artifice, but in the context of the regime in Iran it was more than that.  Here Panahi used artifice to tell us a story that seems to be about a little girl's journey home but is really about the repression of women - the attempt of a man to control what a girl says, feels, and does in the context of her everyday life.  In this context, his artistry reminded me of another great film director - John Cassavettes.  A feeling of accident is captured, and the seemingly free expression of feelings becomes dangerous.  They could careen out of control at any minute.  Cassavettes loved to explore the point at which they did veer out of control in the context of  America's tamer cultural repression.  Listen to Sheila's thoughts on Cassavettes Opening Night here.  Cassavettes could not find commercial acceptance for this kind of work, but the art world gave him tremendous respect for it.  Panahi has been jailed for it, but continues to tell this story over and over again.  For exampel, his Offside (2006) is about Iranian girls who try to sneak in to a soccer match by dressing as boys.  This is great art's role - finding the form in which to sing the songs culture represses. 


Sheila O'Malley said...

Gorgeous Ted - and I love the connection you make to Cassavetes. I love this film - haven't seen his latest yet (made under house arrest - unbelievable - Panahi is a true hero.)

Ted said...

S - I was inspired by your interview on Opening Night, listening to it within a day of watching this film.