The Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari receives a video message from a young woman who’s taped her own suicide after reaching the conclusion that she likely won’t fulfill her dream of becoming an actress. The suicide girl lives in a small village, far from Tehran, and any activity that doesn’t involve milking cows or knitting is regarded with a lot of suspicion by the locals, thus bringing dishonor. While suspecting that it is a fake, done to draw attention to herself, Behnaz sets off with director Jafar Panahi to the her village.
Encounters with the locals take place, some times comical, at other times emotional or angry, the journey taking Panahi and his actress around various hills and down single-lane dirt roads and parts of Iran that are as remote as they are backward but not without their ancestral charm.
Once they reach the girl’s village, the locals immediately vanish after they hear mention her name, only later to come around, and become their usual hospital selves once again.
The promise of cinema provided an escape for the young woman. She saw acting as a way out to improve her station in life. Cinema carries with it the possibility of redemption, self-affirmation, and even illusion. For Jafar Panahi, an auteur who has been at loggerheads with the Iranian authorities for years, which resulted in arrests, convictions, interdictions and censorship, when there is no freedom of expression, making a film ends up being equivalent to both an act of existence and of resistance. He projects his frustrations unto the young woman.
During their journey together, Panahi meets with the realities of rural life, rumors, an overblown sense of honor, traditions, and different languages (a lot of the villagers don’t speak regular Farsi, but fortunately he speaks their dialect). Through this cinematic exercise, a genre unto itself, Jafar Panahi investigates the mechanisms of projection and identification in everyday people as triggered by cinema and the illusions that it holds. In a hilarious scene one of the village elders hands over a small cloth sack. It’s his recently-born son’s foreskin (it’s been preserved in salt) with a letter. He asks Panahi to take this to Behrooz Voso0ghi and give it to him, he wants to ensure that his son will be manly and strong. Vosooghi, who lives in L.A. now, all rugged handsomeness, is Iran’s answer to Charles Bronson.
There’s so much symbolism, old world tales, parables, commentary on class differences and cultural clashes, to inventory in this here article, worthy of a later, more consequential article. I remember the great big feeling of satisfaction that I felt when walking out of the theater. Panahi has made an accomplished film with very little. A car, a drive through the hills, a piece of rope and a slab of wood and some villagers. And with it he manages to capture a lot, not least of which, cinema’s place in the world.
Notice how unusual Panahi’s films are, the fact that he puts himself front and center in his own movies, it’s almost as if he’s developing a new film genre, the one that bears his name. And as I watched his bonhomie face on the huge Lumière theater, I thought, since he knew he wouldn’t be able to show up in person, he made sure that at least, he’d be present on the big screen.