Mina (Mina Mohammad Khani), in traditional garb and her arm in a plaster cast, waits outside for her mother to pick her up after a day at school, but her mother’s 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 know where Mina lives. After meeting a few random characters, she eventually finds a bus that may lead her home, but fails to explain to the driver where she lives or how to get there. He tells her to get on and that one of his drivers will take her 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. But as Mina gets on the bus something strange happens: she looks into the camera and we hear a voice say, “Don’t look into the camera, Mina”. Immediately after, she removes her scarf and cast and proclaims that she doesn’t want to act anymore. 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.
For those aware of Iranian cinema, this integrated marriage of fiction and documentary will most likely call to mind Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, 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 Balloon).
Like Close-Up, Panahi’s film is a metafiction 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 it 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 quit 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.
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 even though her voice can still be heard on a mic and again 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, the entire film is staged or not seems to belie the fact that Panahi continually keeps us wondering and asking these questions. In so doing, filmmaking and fiction are deconstructed to a degree that few filmmakers since Godard have managed to achieve. The disjunction between what we see and hear (considering that Mina’s mic 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 allusion to Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. Tarkovsky’s was another film concerned with the relationship between reality and fiction; in it 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, Panahi’s has a startling sense of spatial and temporal linearity. Even though we know that Panahi must be compressing time, 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 film. But at a mere 90 minutes the runtime is forgiving enough to keep it consistently compelling and the fact that it so actively engages us with social concerns, of fiction and reality, makes for intellectually rewarding viewing.