This Is Not A Film (In film nist)
Iran (2011) Dirs. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb & Jafar Panahi
If this isn’t a film then what is it? Thankfully it is not an act of pretension from some po-faced snooty arthouse director with a poncey deconstruction of the film medium, but a powerful commentary on censorship and oppression by an unjustly vilified Iranian filmmaker.
Jafar Panahi has been making films for twenty years as well as being an outspoken critic of the Iranian government, resulting in many of his films to be banned in his home country whilst earning much praise and success on the international circuit. In 2010 this dissent finally caught up with Panahi and after a series of short arrests, the authorities decided to put their down and prosecute this thorn in their side.
Looking done the barrel of a six year jail term plus a twenty year ban from directing, a ban from leaving the country and doing any interviews on the charges of “crimes against national security” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”, Panahi was placed under house arrest while the sentence was being finalised.
Via his mobile phone and with the help from friend and collaborator, documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi makes a video diary of his torturous wait for the court’s decision. Of course this is Panahi being his usual defiant self and continuing to do what he loves, circumventing the restrictions imposed on him and making a film right under the authorities’ noses.
There is no real structure or narrative as such except to highlight the utter pettiness and ludicrousy of the Iranian Government’s tyrannical control over its citizens and its suppression and oppression towards freedom of speech. Panahi is careful not to use this film as a political platform to sound off against this travesty choosing subtlety as his key form of attack.
While having his breakfast Panahi receives a call from his solicitor who explains she is confident she can get the prison sentence reduced and possibly the ban, citing some previous success in this area, which paints a sad picture of the state of the country’s sense of democracy if this is a regular occurrence for the solicitor. She may be confident but Panahi is less hopeful, confiding as much in his pet Iguana Igi!
He may be down but Panahi is not yet beaten and when Mirtahmasb arrives he discuss the last script he wrote in detail, effectively narrating the story, acting out some scenes and even marking out the set on his living room floor with masking tape! This brilliant piece of subversion and surreptitious anarchy is briefly interrupted by a moment of melancholy as Panahi remarks “We can tell a film, why can’t we make a film?”
This is pretty much the pattern of the film, following Panahi as he goes about his daily business, the mundanity of the quotidian routines punctuated with the odd musing about his cinematic endeavours. He occasionally pulls up scenes from his back catalogue to explain the motivations behind them in explanation of his theories on film making and directing, whilst subtly revealing his opprobrium towards his blinkered oppressors.
Looking like a Botox free Simon Cowell, Panahi comes across as a sympathetic figure but not a martyr, nor does he present himself as one. Some might argue he is “owning” his problems but the truth is Panahi has nothing to own or be sorry about, something made clear through the situation he is in without openly saying so or bemoaning his quandary.
However this is a snapshot of the greater problem facing artistic freedom and integrity in Iran which can only be shown through Panahi’s eyes. As alluded to with the solicitor’s call earlier this is a bigger problem than just Panahi’s case but he has been the smartest in spreading the word, becoming one the higher profile victims to reach international attention.
Even before this film was made, a number of major filmmakers, critics, actors, politicians and charitable organisations from around the globe shared their support and made their feelings known in calling for Panahi’s release. To this day he is still under house arrest but with a relaxation on his movements inside the country (he still cannot leave its borders) as seen in his most recent film Taxi Tehran in which he posed as a taxi driver and filmed his passengers who improvised their commentary on social issues.
So how did this film get to be released internationally? The old fashioned way – a flashdrive containing it was hidden inside a birthday cake which was then shipped abroad. Someone’s been watching too many old prison movies! Unfortunately the curse continues as Mirtahmasb himself was later arrested for similar charges as Panahi and while his sentence was less, he is currently in career limbo as a result.
It is a sad state of affairs when an artist has to go to such lengths to continue his career and share his work and while this film might seem like further provocation towards the authorities, it is more an open challenge to their imperious regime and striking a blow for art and for democracy. But it also stands as a depressive and sobering document that such archaic and draconian thinking still exists in the 21st century and Panahi deserves our kudos and gratitude for boldly sharing this with us all.
The final punctuation point comes when a student working a part time job collecting rubbish in the apartment and Panahi follows him out on his rounds. They get as far as the courtyard gates where New Year’s fireworks light the sky and bonfires are ablaze. Panahi can go no further, the gates keeping him from the outside world. It is a poetic and chillingly poignant way to close the film.
Frankly This Is Not A Film isn’t a particularly dynamic film with moments of ennui and dead air, but the motivation and meaning behind it is absolutely reason enough to see it at least once. Panahi’s courage, guile and resolute defiance deserves our applause and full support.