The Mirror (or, for those of you who have watched it in Iran, Ayneh) is a film that held a great deal of interest to me from the moment I’d heard of it. The director is Jafar Panahi – an Iranian New Wave filmmaker who some of you may know for having been banned from filmmaking by his country’s government. The film follows a young child all by herself making her way home from school in the capital – Tehran. And there’s a neat little moment right in the middle that will have you questioning the movie’s narrative, your own personal viewing experience, and the inner workings of cinema as an entertainment medium… if you want it to. I’ll be giving away the movie down below, so if this sounds like something you want to watch unspoiled like a fresh summer tomato still ripe on the vine, then please do not read on!
The film follows Baharan, a withdrawn and precocious first grader with a broken arm in a sling, whose mother does not pick her up from school like she normally does. After waiting for a while, she decides to make her own way back home – and, not knowing the names of any landmarks, almost immediately gets lost. She gets on a bus driven by the driver that took her to school — only to find that now he is now on a different route; she gets in a cab to take her to a square with a fountain that she passed that morning — only to discover that there are more than one… and despite their good intentions, it seems as though half of the adults she seeks help from end up sending her in the wrong direction. It’s an inherently worrying situation; and I have to admit that I was getting stressed out while watching – trying my best not to imagine the bad things that could happen to a six year old kid all by herself in the big city.
Don’t let my anxieties influence your view on the film’s tone, however. There are a lot of wonderful moments that pass us by during Baharan’s odyssey; from an elderly woman complaining that she should die just to teach her ungrateful son and his wife a lesson; to a man trying to convince a teacher to come to a wedding with her daughter; to a traffic cop leaving his post to walk Baharan to an auto shop her dad had been to. And if these humanist little glimpses into the lives of the city’s occupants don’t dissipate the tension inherent to the situation, then Baharan’s attitude certainly does. After a certain point in the film, it’s pretty clear (to me, at least) that she’s a smarter first grader than I think any of us could ever hope to have been. A lot of the satisfaction of the film comes from watching her methodically work her way out of being lost and, step by step, finding her way back home.
I would be remiss not to mention the twist that comes in the middle of the movie (though, for reasons you’ll see after reading on, it’s hard to even call it a twist). During a scene on a bus, in the middle of a heated, emotional dialogue between Baharan, a ticketmaster and the driver, Baharan abruptly tells the driver to stop the bus. She then turns to the camera, drops the act, and tells Jafar Panahi – who (along with the entire film crew) has been sitting on the bus this whole time – that she doesn’t want to be in the movie anymore. She then tears off her (fake) arm cast, walks off the bus, and starts making her way back home by herself. After realizing that she has forgotten to take off her wireless microphone, the film crew decides to film the movie anyways; following Mina (the actor who plays Baharan) from a distance as she tries to make the trek from the film set back to her house.
What follows is essentially the same as what we had been watching before. But where Baharan was a quiet, insecure first grader who trudges around the city, getting more and more lost, nearly on the edge of tears; Mina is a tough-as-nails teeth to the grindstone second grader who runs literally everywhere she goes – darting through traffic, racing through crowds; impatient to make her own way home even when the situation seems to calls for patience.
While revealing the artifice of a film’s construction through a fourth wall break isn’t really anything new, it is a rare thing (at least, I think it is) to see it used in a way that invites us to search deeper into a film, or to offer a new perspective – as opposed to using it to a distanciating effect or for some sort of gag (Blazing Saddles, Monty Python, etc.).
There are a lot of really heady places you could go interpreting this fourth wall break and its effect both in and out of the film. You could get into the different philosophies of cinematic realism and neorealism; or the role that societal desires and expectations play in the creation of a movie; or the ethics of film’s inherent exhibitionist nature… and the list goes on. I’m no film theorist, so I won’t talk about any of them – but it does seem clear that this is one of the two types of discussion that the film would like to encourage.
The second discussion is, of course, a feminist one – and it’s intertwined with the first. Jafar Panahi, the director, is a somewhat important and vocal member in the feminist and humanist movements of Iran; and the country is one of a couple Middle Eastern states that have historically suffered from a lack of women’s rights. It’s never a huge part of the plot (relegated to just a couple of passing conversations, and the inciting incident on the bus) – but upon closer inspection, this aspect of Iranian society plays quite a large role beneath the surface. I won’t go too deep into this discussion either (again, I’m no theorist) – but, if you’ll indulge me, I would like to go into a little bit of it.
When I realized how striking the differences in mannerism were between Baharan and Mina, and considered the extreme societal disconnects between genders in Iran, it was hard not to associate Baharan – the withdrawn, hesitant character built for the film within the film – with the manner in which a male-dominated Iranian society perceives (or perceived?) its female members. From the moment that Mina quits the movie, a recurring question of the film is why she was so angry as to leave. The answer to that question lies in those differences between the two characters, I think — how Mina is fed up with having to act like a wimp for the sake of the film, and decides half way through that she would rather just not be in the movie at all. It seems to me that this conflict between character and actor could pretty easily been seen as a reflection of the conflict between perception and reality within our society — specifically, the perception of women in Iran’s male-dominated society at the time of the film’s creation. And this association — along with Mina’s frustrations — present a pretty condemning critique of the country’s societal perceptions at the time of the film’s release.
Jack’s rating: 9 blocks out from Parliament Square, then take a left at the post office and wait, I don’t know, about 10 minutes or so for the bus to Elamshahr. Or just take a cab!
- If you were to (somehow) skip the fourth wall break, and watch the movie without worrying about all the different interpretations, critiques, and associations rumbling beneath the surface… you’d still have a freakin’ sweet time my friend! This is a dope little neorealist film that I can’t imagine anyone disliking!
- I really, really love the camera and audio work in this movie – especially the stuff that comes after Mina’s departure from the set. Everything from that point is shot from a car driving in traffic, and there are a couple of sequences in which Mina escapes the frame of the camera. These were wonderful little moments that made me feel like I was playing detective along with the film crew. We can’t see her on the screen… she’s short, and the streets are really crowded… so the only way to figure out her location is through studying the sound of her surroundings in the audio track. Reminds me a little bit of a couple of Robert Altman’s sequences… some of his sound design philosophies show up in this movie!
- I also really loved the ending shot of the film; a very slow telephoto zoom, with Mina staring at the camera through the front door of her house, a look of disdain(?) on her face… it’s great stuff yo!