Bearing Witness: Golshifteh Farahani's history of watching in SHIRIN and EXTRACTION

Connecting the strange dots between an experimental masterpiece and the new Netflix bone breaker

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Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) weaves together medium close up shots of various women sitting in a dark movie theater. The tight framing captures them in maximum expressive detail while they watch an adaptation of Nizami Ganjavi’s epic Persian poem Khosrow and Shirin playing out in almost real-time. As viewers, we never see the film-within-a-film; only faces and the flickering projector light emanating from a dimly lit background. Dialogue, music, and sound effects from the production can be heard, but provide almost no continuity because of the camera’s seemingly anti-dramatic vantage point.

Except viewing these women experience such a vast array of emotions in such intimate proximity, from boredom to excitement to sadness, is the epitome of pure cinema. As viewers of the experimental film, we find ourselves in a particularly unique situation watching the watchers, women whose facial expressions and small gestures provide windows into collective and personal spectatorship.

One of the attendees in Kiarostami’s film, played by the Iranian-born French actor Golshifteh Farahani, seems especially moved by what she’s witnessing through the celluloid haze. Her eyes are glassy, but not yet overflowing with tears like some of the other patrons. She gazes at the screen with an almost resolute acceptance of the pain and trauma in Shirin’s tragic story. It’s as if she’s lived through something similar, or feels like she easily could in the near future.

Farahani’s dynamic presence not only makes a film more interesting, but also more probing and immediate. She can scan a room or situation and convey multitudes without saying a word. This happens a few times in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008) where Farahani plays a smart but vulnerable nurse and love interest to Leonardo DiCaprio’s hard-charging C.I.A. operative. She’s often relegated to the background or positioned as an object of affection, but the actor makes the most of her few moments in the spotlight.

Those familiar with Farahani’s international work know that she’s capable of carrying a film with heavy dialogue sequences and dramatic range. See Asghar Farhadi’s tense morality potboiler About Elly (2009) or Atiq Rahimi’s war drama The Patience Stone (2012). Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2015) gives Farahani the opportunity to infuse mundanity with chirpy vitality and fizzy passion as the free-spirited artist to Adam Driver’s New Jersey poet bus driver, a good man struggling to reconcile the beauty of words with everyday bitterness and regret.

Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun (2018) put a machine gun in Farahani’s hands, and she’s never looked more at ease playing the commander of an all-female Kurdish platoon fighting ISIS on the front lines of Syria. Almost universally panned after premiering at Cannes, the film basically disappeared into the release doldrums, and unfairly so. While taxing and obvious at times, it deserves some praise for finally putting the spotlight on this warrior of an actor in some beautifully paced combat sequences and moments of internal catharsis. Farahani’s character does more looking than talking, meshing palpable rage with genuine fear to create a stalwart embodiment of feminist endurance facing down the ultimate patriarchal death machine.

Which brings us to Extraction (2020), a bruising and exciting Netflix-produced bone breaker from stunt coordinator-turned-filmmaker Sam Hargrave. The film features Chris Hemsworth as Tyler Rake, the nearly unstoppable mercenary for hire trying to escape hostile Dhaka with the kidnapped son of an Indian drug lord. Farahani plays the key supporting role of Nik, strategic overseer, and eyes in the sky to Tyler’s grunt on the ground. She seems initially relegated to passive observer status, watching a real-time clusterfuck unfold through various digital surveillance screens.

Much of the film’s positive buzz has been rightly due to the long take action scenes that sting with closeness, brutality, and a flair for escalation. As Nik’s best-laid plans for a clandestine snatch and grab produce nothing short of a citywide gun battle, she’s forced to watch from afar as Tyler dispatches countless security forces and military personnel with the panache and verve of an artist who was born to kill.

While Farahani’s Nik bears witness to Tyler’s ongoing struggle - victories, beatdowns, and all the headshots in between - correlations with Shirin begin to emerge. Once again, she’s a stand-in for the audience, someone we are positioned next to on this roller coaster of kinetics. Kiarostami spreads the emotional responsibility of this tactic across many female faces, women who are given autonomy and agency through the camera’s patient egalitarian coverage. Initially, Extraction achieves the exact opposite effect, placing Farahani’s Nik in the position of someone who experiences the spectrum of emotions through the eyes of an increasingly fragile and wounded man/commodity she cares about. In short, her investment is purely emotional and financial at this point.

Then comes the finale, a wonderfully fleet climax that upends this dynamic. While Tyler and fellow wild card special forces operative Saju (Randeep Hooda) make their last stand on a smoldering, bullet-riddled bridge, Nik and her squad of armed contractors emerge guns blazing to help save the day on the other side. The characters we previously thought were business-oriented and techies are now wearing tactical goggles and flak jackets. Farahani’s character brandishes an RPG and high range sniper rifle proving equally lethal with both weapons. Her poise under fire stands in contrast to the nervousness she previously felt watching the action progress from afar.

Seeing Farahani move with such proficiency and efficiency within what has mostly been a masculine story gives the film increased urgency and dimension. And if Hargrave’s denouement is to be taken seriously, we all might be in for a sequel where Nik finally takes center stage. If that little slice of theoretical heaven doesn’t come to fruition, at least Extraction brings full circle some of the ideas presented in Kiarostami’s Shirin with a familiar face, including but not limited to how watching becomes a form of expression and participation within very different kinds of cinema.


Where to Watch

Shirin can be streamed through Mubi on Amazon Prime.

About Elly can be rented on iTunes VOD.

Extraction can be found on Netflix.

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Until next time,