The Mirror

After a day at school, Mina (Mina Mohammad Khani) awaits outside for her mother to pick her up, but Mina’s mother is late and Mina begins to become concerned. Time passes, and Jafar Panahi’s camera stays trained on Mina at about eye level. There’s a sense of growing nervousness as the intimate realism takes us into Mina’s escalating fear and confusion. Senses become heightened as the sound of the city is heard, with the rumblings of vehicles punctuated by the sounds of horns like growls and screams in a concrete jungle. Mina complains to a teacher who has just left, but the teacher doesn’t really know what to do since she doesn’t know where Mina lives. A man who has been talking to the teacher offers to take Mina to the bus stop where she claims to know how to get home from. Mina reaches the bus stop and gets on, but it quickly becomes clear that she still has no idea how to get home. She sits next to an old woman who tells her to get up and offer her seat to a pregnant woman who has just gotten on the bus, and as Mina moves we hear the old woman relating a story about how her children have abandoned her.

Eventually Mina talks to the driver who tells her to stay on the bus and one of his drivers will take her home. But as Mina gets on the bus, standing in the front, at about the 40 minute mark something strange happens: she looks into the camera and we hear a voice say “don’t look into the camera, Mina”. Immediately after she takes off her scarf and cast and proclaims that she doesn’t want to act any more. She storms off the bus and is clearly determined to go home and not return. With the fourth wall broken, Panahi directs everyone to keep the cameras trained on her and keep her microphone on. What follows is a film that has shifted from telling a fictional story about a girl trying to get home, to a documentary about that girl trying to get home. It’s difficult to stress just how much of a jolt this scene is, and I almost feel I’m doing an injustice by “spoiling” it for anyone who hasn’t read about the film.

For those aware of Iranian cinema, this integrated marriage of fiction and documentary will most likely call to mind Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up. Close-Up was a film in which Kiarostami documented the real trial of a man who had impersonated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and deceived a family into “starring” in his film. The bizarre case was difficult to comprehend since there was no actual fraud as the man didn’t take anything from the family. To make matters stranger, Kiarostami managed to bring the impersonator and the family together to re-enact the events, creating a fictional representation of things that really happened at the same time they were documenting the aftershocks of the events themselves. This is especially relevant since Panahi was a protégé of Kiarostami, serving as assistant director for Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, and Kiarostami had co-written two of Panahi’s films (Crimson Gold and The White Baloon).

Like Close-Up, The Mirror is a metafictional film that investigates the relationship between reality and fiction; in the former, those levels were so intricately intertwined that the film was like an ouroboros in which is became nearly impossible to tell where fact began and fiction ended (or vice versa). The Mirror attempts to recreate that complex network of reflexivity. And the fact that the “switch” comes in the middle of the film seems to suggest the nature of a mirror itself, in which the reflection offers the inversed half of the reality that it’s reflecting. The second half’s documentary seems to offer many such inversed encounters and conversations which echo with the first half, perhaps most noticeably when Mina meets the old woman on a park bench and tells her she’s quite the film. She asks the woman if they gave her all her lines to say too, and the woman tells her that she wished they had, but everything she said about her family is true.

But for perceptive viewers, it’s impossible not to question the veracity of the second half’s reality. Can we really accept that it’s mere coincidence that Mina’s reality would naturally reflect the film’s fiction to such an extreme degree? So many scenes repeat, such as one where Mina tries to make a call from a phone booth. Can we really accept that the real Mina doesn’t seem to know her way home any better than her fictional counterpart? She certainly seems to frequently contradict herself when talking to people about how much she knows about where she lives. Can we really accept that this reality is so full of discussions about film and fiction? This latter point especially pops up in a scene where the van following “the real” Mina loses track of her, but her voice can still be heard on a mic and while standing at the post-office (where’s she’s supposed to meet her brother) she encounters the actor who dubbed John Wayne in Iran.

Whether the second half or, indeed, whether the entire film is staged or not seems to belie the fact that Panahi continually keeps us wondering and asking these questions. In doing so, filmmaking and fiction is deconstructed to such a degree that few filmmakers since Godard has managed to achieve. The disjunction between what we see and hear (considering that Mina’s mike is on her but the camera is often far away) reminds us that we don’t hear what the camera records, but what the soundmen and microphones do. At the same time, the conversations about women’s rights (which we “overhear” while Mina is in a cab) and the frequent updated reports on the ongoing soccer game are reminders of a social context that is omnipresent in both fiction and reality.

While the title accurately reflects the film’s structure and themes, and while the film itself is certainly more indebted to Close-Up, there may be a subtle titular illusion to Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. Tarkovsky’s mirror was another film concerned about the relationship of reality and fiction in which Tarkovsky mixed fictionalized memories of his own childhood, newsreel footage, and his father’s poems into a film that was designed to reflect the life of the viewer. But where Tarkovsky’s cinematic experiment was an elliptical, impressionistic work, The Mirror has an a startling sense of spatial and temporal linearity. Even though we know that Panahi must be compressing time in order to show Mina getting hold, events still feel as if they’re unfolding in near real-time, further blurring the line between fiction and reality.

Besides the film’s concerns with cinematic self-reflexivity, The Mirror seems to be reflecting Iranian cinema and its concerns in general. The rather (post)modernistic concerns of metafiction would seem to be an uneasy fit with a country who’s cinema is one of the most socially conscious in the world. Yet it may be the unease that Iranian filmmakers feel in attempting to depict their society and culture through fiction that has lead them to examine the depths and limits of fiction’s ability to capture reality. If The Mirror fails on any level its perhaps in its repetitiveness that strips from the film much of the dynamic richness of Close-Up or Tarkovsky’s Mirror. But at a mere 90 minutes the runtime is forgiving enough to keep it consistently compelling, and the fact that it so actively engages un in these concerns of society and culture, and of fiction and reality makes for intellectually rewarding viewing.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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