At the World Cinema Showcase, the creative resilience of Jafar Panahi’s captivating new film.
Since mid-2009 celebrated Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Offside) has been in and out of Iranian police custody (and prison) for a variety of stated and unstated official reasons. Finally, in late December 2010, the auteur was (according to Farideh Gheirat as quoted in a BBC News article) found guilty of “(participating) in a gathering and carrying out propaganda against the system”; a charge incurring a sentence of six years imprisonment alongside a 20 year ban from making films and writing screenplays. Over the course of one day, with prospects looking grim, Panahi set about creating a kind of personal video diary which in turn developed into the hard-to-categorise feature This is Not a Film—famously smuggled out of Iran and into the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a USB stick hidden inside a cake.
Panahi’s latest offering—not a ‘film’ mind—seems the product of a potent mix of boredom, desperation, creative impulse, and fear. At home alone under house arrest, the filmmaker turns the camera upon himself to record some part of his situation including a call to his lawyer from whom he hopes to hear good news regarding his appeal. Some straight to camera musing proves unsatisfactory, and so Panahi rings in his friend and contemporary Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (co-credited as director with Panahi) to get behind the camera and shoot as he will. The last ‘act’ of the film plays out when Mirtahmasb leaves and a slightly desperate Panahi follows and interviews a young man who is emptying rubbish from his apartment building.
Falling somewhere between documentary, home video, and an exegetical film lecture, This is Not a Film illustrates the irrepressibility of the creative mind, as a restless and frustrated Panahi stalks his apartment alternately taken by fits of depression and passionate inspiration. At one point, whilst talking through a screenplay for a banned film project he was in preproduction on when the sentence was given, he goes so far as to tape out the floor dimensions of an intended set. All of a sudden, he ceases the process in disgust, and goes into a passionate rant about how it is impossible to adequately ‘explain’ a film simply from a screenplay when so much of its creation is dynamically dependent upon the production process. He even plays scenes on his flat-screen TV from two previous films (The Mirror, Crimson Gold) to illustrate the point. Then there is an amusing scene where Panahi tries to direct Mirtahmasb in terms of shot framing, camera moves, and positioning, to which the latter bites back saying something akin to “you just be the subject and I’ll shoot how I want; we don’t want you to be accused of directing this ‘project’ do we.”
All the while, the facts of everyday life intrude upon our notice: answer phone messages informing us that today is some kind of festival holiday, that the rest of his family will be celebrating at his parents’ place, and that he is unable to attend due to his incarceration; phone calls with his lawyer which paint a not too optimistic view of the future; the annoying neighbour attempting to offload her nervous dog on him at the very last minute so she can attend celebrations of her own; and his daughter’s overly familiar and overly photogenic peg iguana Igi crawling all over him and audience’s attention. The fact that there is no real narrative structure to this piece might limit its audience somewhat, except that all the content coalesces into a moving example of how freedom finds ways to seep through the barriers of captivity—a theme not uncommon in many mainstream films, though nowhere near as poignantly struck as in This is Not a Film.
That Panahi, facing a hefty prison sentence and the effectual removal of his primary creative outlet, is able to turn out such an unexpectedly gripping piece of cinema is testament to both his quality as a filmmaker and to the resiliency of humanity under all forms of oppression and constraint. Paradoxically, This is Not a Film ushers in hope riding upon the back of great sadness. My best thoughts and hopes for the future go out to Jafar Panahi and his family.