What other arts have been doing for decades – reflecting on the medium themselves rather than the content they carry – cinema has started picking up. Not many films have sought to break off from the narrative seriousness to come out and ponder on the nature of cinema itself. The names of Godard and Kiarostami clearly stand out in this context. But one quiet little film that Jafar Panahi made between the widely celebrated The White Balloon and The Circle could easily have made the former filmmakers proud.
Iranian cinema has been getting a lot of attention in this first decade of the new century and rightly so. The contribution of stalwarts like Abbas Kiarostami is being progressively applauded with Kiarostami himself being called as the unofficial leader of the whole movement. And if we jot down the names of the most vital of his Iranian contemporaries, we would almost instantly arrive at one name that has been surprising the audience with the sheer power of the films he has been creating with shocking consistency – Jafar Panahi. The charming The White Balloon (1995) put him on the world cinema map firmly and films like The Circle (2000) just added to his glory. But a quiet little film that he made in between these two films, Ayneh (1997), is one that has intrigued me for years and has made me return to it multiple times.
One should be careful while furnishing the story of Ayneh for the very plot is subject to one’s own interpretations. You’ll know what I mean when you see the film’s tradition defying form that can by itself start a perpetually healthy conversation about cinema. You have a little girl Mina ready to go home after the school. Her mother has not come to pick her up. So she decides to go home on her own. There are a lot of struggles in her venture and a hope for triumph seems vague. And suddenly at one point in the film, Mina throws down her scarf and announces that she is not going to act any more. This is where we are revealed that what we have witnessed is a film shooting. Mina quits and walks home as the crew continues to film her from their vehicle as the shooting for the day seems to stand aborted. Or does it?
The film’s title translates to the word Mirror – an instrument that one can look at in two ways– one that reproduces reality as it is without any ornamentation or one that resembles reality only because it completely inverts it point by point. One is a statement about absolute truth and the other about absolute falsehood. And like this paradoxical idea that the mirror presents, Panahi’s film uses the cinematic screen as a mirror that simultaneously presents both striking similarity between the two formally different sections of the film and stark difference between the fiction of the first part and the intriguing “reality” of the second. Mina struggles to find the way to her home and her tongue-tied nature nearly shuts off the possibilities. On the other hand, we see a bolder Mina going out into the wilderness of Tehran and sorting it out herself. But what remains same is her untainted childishness that shows that children are after all, children. Inherently, this duality makes one think how fiction tries to track reality closely and how reality itself is so fictionalized.
There is a clearly defined point in the film where Mina breaches the fourth wall and quits shooting. She goes off from the “sets” and walks home on her own. The film makers continue to film her nevertheless without her knowledge. Now, it is comfortable to assume that what ever has happened till now is the fictional part and what ever is going on is nothing but reality. But are we witnessing reality as it is? How do we know that this dissidence of Mina isn’t staged too? How do we know that what the director is filming in the obviously “candid camera” style isn’t a highly skilled manipulation of the filmic medium? And are we sure that there is no artifice here even though the style is clearly self referential. I am reminded of another skillful film from Iran. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), we have a wannabe director who infiltrates the home of an unsuspecting family impersonating as Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He is caught alright and tried in the court in front of the camera. Note that this is as complex as films get. Kiarostami reconstructed the film with the same family and the crook and staged what happened earlier almost exactly. The trial scene is the real trial though. Here, the protagonist tries to gain sympathy by elaborating his love for cinema. This may be real, but how do we know that this person is not acting because of the presence of the camera? This meditation on the classic Schrödinger cat is perhaps the insuperable study of the nature of cinema but Panahi too manages to put forth some very thought-provoking questions on the ontology of the most popular art.
We as the audience play the most vital part in its execution and his property of Ayneh which places the audience as the completing half of the film is its biggest success. With its all-encompassing sound design that includes even stray sounds such as car horns and other banal conversations, the first half pushes one to accept it readily as a near-genuine representation of reality. But once that illusion is shattered, we are pushed on to a new version of “reality”. We mock ourselves for believing in the first half and comfortably settle once more into the new atmosphere coolly assuring ourselves that this is indeed reality. All this is engrossing and fun. However, the more demanding viewer will be once bitten, twice shy. (S)he will hold the film at an arm’s length. (S)he will be skeptical about what is happening on screen and will try to observe the film rather than get involved. In short, a complete detachment from the medium is achieved - an idea that giants like Godard have been trying for decades.
I like Panahi’s more “conventional” ventures like Crimson Gold (2003) and Circle (2000) which are pretty staggering in their own ways, but what sweeps me off my feet is his films like Ayneh and Offside (2006). In Offside, like Ayneh, Panahi seamlessly blends reality and fiction as we know it. We begin to question about the boundary between them. Is the football match a synthetic premise to construct the film’s ideas or is the drama outside the stadium really happening like the match itself? What other arts have been doing for decades – reflecting on the medium themselves rather than the content they carry – cinema has started picking up. At the end of it all, the content of Ayneh – the girl, her house, the social details –seems secondary even though a lot is open to discussion. And isn’t that a huge success for a such a minimal film such as this? And aren’t we all glad that filmmakers such as Kiarostami and Panahi exist?