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In the eighth year of his two-decade government-imposed filmmaking ban, the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi made Se Rokh (3 Faces): a metafictional story of three actresses at various stages of their careers, all grappling with the forces of oppression that prevent them from freely pursuing their art.
The film begins with a road trip. Playing versions of themselves, Panahi and his lead actress, Behnaz Jafari, drive to a rural village in northern Iran in search of a young aspiring actress, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), who has just sent them a harrowing cell phone video. In the video, a distraught Marziyeh explains that she’s been accepted to Tehran’s acting conservatory, but her orthodox family has forbidden her from attending. “I’ve loved cinema since I was little,” she says, staring straight into the mobile phone camera. “I’ve always dreamed of being an actress. I fought for that and I studied and studied and studied.” She appeals to Jafari for help. But at the end of the video, she enters a cave where a noose dangles from a branch above her, and it’s implied that she has committed suicide. Shaken and unsure of whether Marziyeh is alive or dead, Panahi and Jafari travel north to investigate.
Even in Marziyeh’s rural village, people recognize Jafari, one of Iran’s most famous actresses. She’s a beautiful superstar in dark sunglasses, with a striking, makeup-free face and a shock of red hair peeking out from under her headscarf. When she drives Panahi’s car into the village, children surround her. Adults rush to hug her and people hold up their notebooks for her to autograph. “Since you are here, tell us how the TV series ends?” a tea-seller asks her. “As always, in tears and mourning,” she replies.
Panahi teases out the human beyond the star: we see Jafari worried sick about the girl who, she thinks, has killed herself. Her face contorts in guilt and fear as she sits in the passenger’s seat behind Panahi, while the suicide video drones on in the background.
The film’s third face — one that we never see — is that of Shahrzad, a retired actress who has been ostracized from the village where she and Marziyeh both lived. “If the life of an actress was so enviable, why would Shahrzad have to lead a lonely life?” one villager asks Jafari, who is as ridiculed as she is admired. Shahrzad lives in a little hut on the fringes of the village. Neither camera enter this hut; we only see it from a distance as it remains an oasis of light and laughter. As Shahrzad sets out at the crack of dawn with her painting equipment, Panahi (and the audience) see only her back as she sits to paint a picture of the surrounding forest. The scene suggests that, much like Jafar Panahi himself, Shahrzad still finds beauty in a world that has banished her.
The difficulty of creating art under censorship, and within a society that disowns the artist, is something Panahi knows well. In 2010, Panahi, one of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers, was arrested and charged with making propaganda against the Iranian government. He was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media, or from leaving the country except for medical treatment or making the Hajj pilgrimage. Since then, he’s violated this ban mlutiple times: Se Rokh is the fourth film he has made in eight years.
After his last film, the very direct and humorous Taxi, in which he takes a central role in the narrative, Se Rokh is a more meditative reflection on women’s relationships to art, work, and labor under Iran’s orthodox societal norms and beliefs. Panahi is the force that literally drives the narrative and observes it from a distance. The film’s most pivotal and personal moments leave him out; during a climactic confrontation with Marziyeh’s family, Panahi hands over the reins of the story to Jafari. “Women know to handle these situations better,” he says as he walks away from the scene of action.
The filmmaker and the actress eventually make their way back to Tehran and resume their usual lives. What they leave behind is the sad hilarity of a world where customs make a father wrap up and care for a son’s discarded foreskin, but just the thought of a girl pursuing her art fills her family with rage and violence.
Se Rokh (3 Faces), a film by Jafar Panahi, opens in New York on Friday, March 8 at the IFC Center.