Banned Iranian film producer, Jafar Panahi, has managed to cast criticism on traditional Iranian values, without actually doing so. What he did was extremely clever and comprised a particular way of filming, by which we ended up literally accompanying him, and actress Behnaz Jafari, on an outing deep into the Iranian mountains. Deceptively simple, the film’s take-home message is extremely powerful and complicated – how Iranian women attain the freedom they so desperately seek, trapped as they are, within the confines of the Iranian wilderness. A camera, a mobile phone, a car, and a piece of rope, are all Panahi needed to be able to delve into the deepest alcove of Iranian traditional values. It is not surprising that the Iranian government doesn’t like him.
The well-known and loved actress, Behnaz Jafari, has received a disturbing video on her mobile phone. It depicts a young girl, Marziyeh Rezaie, hysterically pleading for help, and accusing Jafari of having ignored previous attempts to contact her. The video ends with the young girl apparently hanging herself. Marziyeh wants to become an actress, and has already been accepted into a conservatory, in Tehran. She faces violent opposition not only from her family, but from the entire village (“We don’t want any entertainers, here!”) It is ironic that they all oppose her deep desire to become an actress because, as one villager observes, “there are more satellite dishes here, than inhabitants.” For her parents, marrying their daughter off is impossible, if she insists on studying.
Behnaz Jafari contacts film producer Jafar Panahi (both play their own role), and persuades him to set off with her on a long journey into the Iranian mountains, in search of the young girl. The two enter into a world of male dominance, where masculinity is the only thing worth making sacrifices for. We meet a farmer, whose prize bull is blocking the road after having fallen from a ledge. He lectures Panahi on the importance of cattle breeding, and how his stud drives the heifers wild, and cannot be sacrificed, even though he is dying. We learn from an old man, about the traditional uses of the foreskin, after a boy’s circumcision. Bury it in the courtyard of the medical school, and the boy will become a doctor. “He has to study, of course,” the old man hastens to add.
The women of the village seem to placidly accept their lack of independence and total subjugation to the needs of men. Their reaction to women who try to express anything other than their robotic aptitude at making an Iranian cup of tea, is a stony silence. Their snubbing of Jafari and Panahi upon learning that the two had come to the village in search of Marziyeh, epitomizes their disdain regarding the emancipation of women (“We all thought that you had come to help us.”)
Panahi’s respect for Iranian women is sincere and profound – something that may irritate government officials. Upon meeting an old woman lying in her pre-dug grave, “for all the bad that I’ve done,” he points out to her that she hasn’t actually done anything bad. “Yes,” she replies, “but I haven’t done anything good, either.” Women certainly know their place, in this patriarchal way of life. They act as robots, attending to the needs of men and disappearing out of all conversations.
There is another female outcast, in the story – presumably Panahi’s third “face”. She is a former actress, who lives secluded in a house, outside the village. She is bitter over the way she was treated by the Iranian film industry, prior to the Iranian revolution. Living as a recluse, she paints landscapes, writes poems, and gives refuge to outcasts whose only crime is aspiring to think for themselves.
In simply being an observer, and taking us with him, Panahi has side-tracked the pitfalls of airing his personal opinions. He is there to observe and in doing so, he has probably outwitted the entire Iranian government. Although he is conspicuously absent, his solidarity with the women of the village is clear for all to see. It is epitomised by his refusal to accept to drink tea, offered as part of a ritual, the victims of which, are the women who serve it.
The final scene of the film is as simple in its execution as it is deep in its meaning. It depicts two of Panahi’s three faces (Marziyeh Rezaie and Behnaz Jafari), walking down a winding road, side-by-side, away from the village. They cross truckloads of lowing heifers, being driven towards the village, by uncompromising men who ignore the desperately silent cries of the women who live beside them.