Although he has been banned from filmmaking since 2010, he keeps working without the approval of Iranian authorities. The latest work of filmmaker Jafar Panahi, Three Faces, has been received enthusiastically in Cannes.
There are numerous driving scenes in Three Faces, recalling an earlier work by the Iranian filmmaker, Taxi, that had gained Jafar Panahi the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.
Once again, the director sits behind the steering wheel; he's joined by an actress called Behnaz Jafari — the actual name of the actress co-starring in the movie.
The two of them are responding to a cry for help from a young girl, Marziyeh Rezaei, who lives in a remote region of Iran.
She had left a video message to Jafari saying that she wanted to study acting and that she had even been accepted in an acting school. But her parents, preferring to get her married in the traditional way, wouldn't allow her to become an actress.
When the famous actress doesn't react to her message, Marziyeh becomes desperate. She had placed great hope in contacting Behnaz Jafari, an actress who had managed to become a star despite the country's patriarchal structures. In the country's capital Tehran, women enjoy more freedom than their counterparts in rural areas.
The last images in Marziyeh's video message show her putting a rope around her neck before jumping into the unknown.
A tribute to female actresses
Behnaz Jafari and Jafar Panahi therefore head off to a village near the border to Azerbaijan to find out whether the young woman has really committed suicide. She hasn't. What she has managed to do, however, was to lure Behnaz Jafari into her village.
That's where viewers encounter the third "face" that plays an important role in this film. It's Shahrzad who however only shows up as a silhouette. Before the Iranian Revolution, she was a famous actress who is still known in present-day Iran. In the late 1970s, she was forbidden to play in films. Nowadays, the formerly celebrated diva lives in a remote area of the country, lonely and ostracized.
Panahi has devoted his latest work to Iranian actresses, and those who dream of becoming one. Under the present regime, they are outlawed, marginalized and discriminated as "fallen women." But in Three Faces, three generations of women take a stand against their treatment, just like Panahi himself: Even though he was forbidden to direct films eight years ago, he has since managed to produce four works.
Under such circumstances, the director once again saw himself forced to film with minimal means — only one assistant and a single camera. Despite it being a highly sensitive and flexible model, the setup restricts the complexity of the shots. That's why Panahi made the maximum use of his female protagonists, largely remaining in the background himself.
He filmed in three villages in northern Iran where his own parents and grandparents once lived, and where nobody would inform the regime in Tehran about his defiance of his occupational ban.
But the film is more than just a hidden form of criticism of the political situation in his home country, or the traditional attitudes of the inhabitants of these villages. It's also a colorful and humorous portrayal of life in Iran's rural areas, depicting numerous funny situations and traditional customs.
On one occasion, he is given the foreskin of a little boy, inserted in salt, that Panahi is to bury at a powerful place in Tehran, so that the boy will become a respectable man later on.
And then there's a deserted road meandering around a mountain that can only be driven on in one direction at once. A complicated honking ritual determines which car from which direction may pass first.
When Marziyeh, equipped with a shovel, moves in to enlarge the road, the village community steps in. That kind of work may not be done by a girl, people say, until a bull lies down on the road, making it impassable.
Whether or not that scene could be interpreted as an allusion to the regime, Panahi has fascinated viewers in Cannes with his fantastic stories. The Iranian director would certainly have loved to witness his film's world premiere in Cannes, but the Iranian government hasn't only banned him from filmmaking, but also from traveling. Not even the intervention of the French festival organizers could change that.
That's why the seat reserved for him at the premiere remained empty. In spite of that, or because of that, he received frenetic applause.
Against all odds, he has managed once again to secretly produce a film and to get it smuggled out of the country.
Another aspect of his work is that Panahi has produced a feminist manifesto reacting to the current #MeToo era. Without accusing men of anything, he shows solidarity with women. For the first time since his ban, several names come up in the end titles. That may be normal in other countries, but in Iran that must be seen as a courageous gesture. After all, the people mentioned there admit that they have worked with an outlawed director. It's a kind of protest that makes people hope for a better future.