An introduction to 3 Faces by Jafar Panahi

3 Faces
(Film still from 3 Faces)

Not so long ago I wrote a little piece about vatan. Vatan is the Persian word for homeland. My vatan is Iran. The land I was born into. The land I grew up in. The land I have fled. No longer am I in Iran, yet Iran is still in me. Still, do I speak Persian. Still, do I die laughing, bursting out in waterfalls of tears, because of the Iranian sense of humor. Still, do I love Iranian cuisine the most. And always, always do I get really quiet inside, deeply touched by the poetry, profound meaning and critical, nonconformist subversiveness of Iranian cinema.

Vatan. It’s where I’m rooted. No matter where I go, wherever I travel to, wherever I live. Outside, yet rooted. Moreover, these roots are always with me because they are within me. Exactly this is the meaning of homeland. It’s a legacy, inherited the very moment one is born into this world. A heritage, a history, a story. A cultural and political story one never loses … can’t ever lose. Through and for me, Iran transcends all its political — its fictional — borders.

Because of this rootedness, that I share with 5 million Iranians who are currently living outside of Iran, I am part of the transnational public sphere — to use the words of the Iranian historian and cultural critic, Hamid Dabashi1. It means that I am part of a sensual universe of homeland. Moreover, so are 80 million Iranians who are living in Iran, just as Mr. Jafar Panahi is.

Physically he can’t be here tonight, unfortunately, and never will I pretend to be able, even slightly, to fill his absence. What I can do though, is to point your attention to this transnational Iranian public sphere that, thanks to him, tonight has found a landing place at this venue. A public sphere that is being created not only by him and every person rooted in our vatan, but tonight also by you. Transnational public spheres, after all, are sites were dialogues take place.

Conversations that open up the possibility for cultural exchange, a cross-pollination that eliminates the constant tendency of thinking in binaries. Binaries such as “Iran” versus “the West,” “backward” versus “modern,” “religious” versus “secular.” A thinking that creates nothing and reduces everything.

Thinking in binaries is a thinking that creates nothing and reduces everything.Click To Tweet

During the next 1,5 hours, Panahi himself will talk to you. He will tell you stories. Stories of the past, the present, and the future. In different layers, you will be able to see and sense how the past, with its histories and legacies, is in a collision with the future, a collision of tradition with modernity.

That past is being transcended though. Through 3 women and their new, old and still unfulfilled needs, desires and pursuits of happiness. Each of them in their own way authentically searches for a modernity that should be something other than merely a bad imitation of the West.

Their solidarity with each other — a solidarity that builds up slowly, uneasily even, yet steadily — transcends their individual time, class and age. It is barely visible, yet utterly sensual, and once it has come about it may lead to new insights and world-views that open up the space that future needs. Indeed, the opening up of space is the prerequisite for any real future to ever possibly occur.

The important thing here is that, as long as the past is dominant and thus not closed, just as long there won’t ever be enough space for any future to happen; let alone for any real present. However, closing the past doesn’t mean annihilating it by simply forgetting it, disregarding its presence, or doing away with it.

No. Closing the past means understanding its meaning for those who were not the winners of history. It means experiencing their past action in the present and by so doing opening up space for the change that didn’t exist then, but that was utterly urgent for the fulfillment of their dreams, needs, and pursuits of happiness. Creating this change in the present means letting real understanding to occur and as a consequence not only redeeming the past unfulfilled pursuits of happiness but at the same time creating the possible fulfillment of present and future ones.

So, closing the past means creating this specific manner of understanding and thus change to take place. A change that then can be materialized via solidary and joint action without destroying old but meaningful insights, rituals, stories or traditions. Precisely this is the attitude that lies at the core of Iranian feminism.

With his subtle and profoundly quiet art, Panahi visualizes these different layers and spheres of time and understanding which indirectly also point to the fact that the most significant power for change in Iran has always stemmed, and still stems, from the everyday wishes, needs, and pursuits of happiness of the Iranian plurality. A plurality that has managed often enough in history to collaborate and to act in solidarity — nationally as well as transnationally, and regardless of any given identity. All that to create freedom.

This plurality of Iranian people, their power and continuous strive for change gets hopelessly drowned in the reductive and uncritical binary western view of Iran. Tonight though we can transcend the binaries by listening to Panahi’s pictures and metaphors of Iranian plurality. A plurality that you will recognize, once you look beyond the surface of the immediate and apparent images.

Iran is a land of pictures and metaphors, and the Iranian art of living is to work with what is hidden and concealed2. This layeredness, this ambiguity — or irony if you will —, is the language of art. On the one hand, there’s this layer of the visible surface, and then there’s this other layer, concealed and yet pregnant with a deeper meaning. Both are necessary, and especially in Iran these layered pictures and metaphors are never static, but always dynamic. As such they help to say the ineffable, the unspeakable.

Could it, therefore, be that Panahi’s title 3 Faces is not only pointing to the story of three Iranian women fighting for freedom in the Islamic Republic of Iran? Is his transnational Iranian story of the needs, demands, and pursuits of happiness of 3 women from 3 generations perhaps also a tale of the ineffability of metaphysical time, that is the metaphysical relationship between the past and the future? A relationship that makes a real present possible. The real present as an illuminating one in which real judgment and concerted solidary action among the many plural people can come about.

These thoughts quietly formed inside my mind whilst watching Panahi’s beautiful art of storytelling that moved me into dialogue not only with him and his protagonists but also with myself.

Hannah Arendt defines what she calls pure thinking3 as the silent dialogue of me with myself that can only take place in solitude. The object of this thinking, however, is the world and all the different perspectives of the plurality of human beings in it.

Correspondingly for Dabashi “cinema is where society comes together in solitude”4. In the transnational public sphere ‘society’ no longer is confined to national borders, but receives the broader and richer quality of what Arendt calls worldliness. A status that is ever more real than the purely fictional and utterly thin national identity.

So, transcending national borders is transcending the political and as such fictional borders of the many diverse and plural homelands of the many real – thus not fictional – human beings of the world. Perceived along these lines the meaning of transcendence, therefore, is freedom, and freedom is the prerequisite for real morality.

A morality that is grounded in the permanent pursuit of creating a world that is the home of every person who has lived on earth in the past, who is living now, and who will be living in the future. The moment we allow transcendence to touch us, the moment we open up to its possibility of freedom and real morality, the moment our minds and thinking earnestly are susceptible to its inspiration, at that very moment we may become cosmopolitans.

The Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou beautifully visualizes this cosmopolitanism in a few lines he wrote in 1967. Please allow me to finish this introduction with his voice:

I wish I could
For a moment I wish I could
Have sat upon my shoulder
This countless mass
And taken them around
The sphere of the earth
So they could see with their own eyes
Where their sun rises—
And they would believe me.
I wish I could5

This introduction has been given at De Balie Amsterdam during the event World Cinema Amsterdam 2018.



  1. Dabashi, H. (2016) Iran without Borders.
  2. As is beautifully recognised by Charlotte Wiedemann in Der neue Iran (2017).
  3. Arendt, H. (2013) Vom Leben des Geistes.
  4. Dabashi, H. (2016) Iran without Borders.
  5. Translation from Persian by Hamid Dabashi in Iran without Borders.
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