NYFF 2011: This Is Not a Film (d. Jafar Panahi)

Originally published on Capital New York.

Context is required for This Is Not a Film.

Award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested on March 10, 2010, on suspicion of making a film critical of the current regime. International outcry was immediate. The Cannes Film Festival happened to be going on at the time, and Jafar Panahi was slated to be on the Jury. As a protest for his arrest, his chair was left open, and Juliette Binoche, Abbas Kiarostami, and others, expressed their outrage and sadness, in words that went round the world (and certainly reached Iran). Panahi went on hunger strike. The pressure intensified, and Iran released him on bail. He awaited the verdict for another 8 or 9 months, and on December 20, 2010, the sentence came down. He was charged with “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” and was given a 6-year prison sentence as well as a 20-year ban on filmmaking (essentially a lifetime ban, considering his age). A younger filmmaker colleague, Mohammad Rasoulof received the same sentence. Additionally, Panahi is not allowed to travel or give interviews. It is a death sentence for his art.

For years, Panahi was harassed by Iranian authorities due to the explicit political and social messages in his films (many of which have to do with the position of women in Iran). “They” were trying to nail him for some time. International pressure has at least helped keep a spotlight on Panahi’s situation (as well as other imprisoned and harassed Iranian artists), but the prospects do not look good. Panahi is currently in prison. At the opening ceremony for this year’s Berlinale Film Festival, Jury president Isabella Rossellini read an open letter from Panahi, a letter smuggled out of Iran. The entirety of his letter can be read here. Panahi’s letter closes with

Ultimately, the reality of my verdict is that I must spend six years in jail. I’ll live for the next six years hoping that my dreams will become reality. I wish my fellow filmmakers in every corner of the world would create such great films that by the time I leave the prison I will be inspired to continue to live in the world they have dreamed of in their films.

So from now on, and for the next twenty years, I’m forced to be silent. I’m forced not to be able to see, I’m forced not to be able to think, I’m forced not to be able to make films.

I submit to the reality of the captivity and the captors. I will look for the manifestation of my dreams in your films, hoping to find in them what I have been deprived of.

Despite all of this, This Is Not a Film has arrived, an “illegal” film, a film that should not exist, a film so dangerous that every name in the end-credits is left blank. This Is Not a Film is a powerful echo of a voice just recently silenced.

Shot in 2010 mostly on Panahi’s iPhone, as well as a camera leant by his colleague and friend, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran inside a cake to premiere at this year’s Cannes.

This Is Not a Film is a “day in the life” of Jafar Panahi as he awaits the verdict from his lawyer. He hangs around in his luxurious Tehran apartment. His wife and daughter are away. He takes care of a giant lizard named Igi, who crawls over bookcases, couches, and Panahi himself. Shot during the Iranian Nowruz celebration, the sound of fireworks outside are a constant, giving a violent undertone to the mostly benign images of Panahi making tea, eating breakfast. The footage is unremarkable at first, a stationary camera placed on a surface pointing at Panahi. We watch him talk to his lawyer on the phone. She tells him a prison sentence is definite, but she hopes the 20-year ban won’t happen. She wonders if internal pressure would help, but Panahi resists. He doesn’t want to get his colleagues into any more trouble. Meanwhile, he puts in a call to a friend (Mirtahmasb), and asks him to come over. He can’t say more on the phone.

Mirtahmasb arrives (off-camera, so he can’t be identified to anyone watching later on) and sets up the camera in the kitchen. Panahi talks to the camera about the film he was planning on making when he got arrested. He holds the script in his hands, and talks about what he would like to do with the film (the one he was planning and the “not a film” underway). He would like to talk through the script, and describe the film he was going to make.

He says, “I might create an image of the film that wasn’t made.”

This is a tragedy.

Panahi jokes that whatever it is they are filming will be “behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films.”

The two men move into the living room and Panahi tapes out the set on the floor. He had already done location scouting in Isfahan and found the perfect room, and holds out his iPhone to the camera, showing us the picture of the girl he found for the lead role, saying, “Her face showed she had lived a life with a lot of hardship and problems.” (Panahi usually works with non-professional actors.) During this section, Panahi is focused and totally in the work-zone, as he describes to the camera how the room is set up, and how he envisions the first shot. For the “film that wasn’t made”, for the film that won’t be made, ever.

Mirtahmasb moves around him, sometimes shooting him from overhead, so we see Panahi on the giant Persian carpet, taping out where the stairs would be.

Panahi, at one point, from out of nowhere, is overcome with emotion, the first sign of despair. He says to himself, “If we could tell a film … then why make a film …”

The heaviness of his situation is too much to bear.

They take a break. Panahi talks about his “case”, about the problems he’s had with the authorities over the years. To illustrate his points, and maybe as a way to remind himself of all of his work, Panahi pops in DVDs of his films, Crimson Gold and The Circle, and freezes on certain scenes, talking about what happened on that day, how the actor surprised him, how the location was perfect, the struggles and mishaps every film crew faces.

You get the sense of how he works, how he allows for – and embraces – accident and surprise.

This Is Not a Film allows for it as well.

The fireworks are intrusive, but they are part of the reality. A neighbor shows up and asks if she could leave what may very well be the most annoying dog on the planet while she runs out on an errand. As Panahi looks for news on the Internet about his case, Igi the lizard is seen slowly crawling up through a bookcase, insinuating itself between the shelves. A handsome college student helping out with the trash in the building shows up, and Panahi follows him into the elevator. As they ride the elevator, the kid gets off on every floor to pick up the trash. The kid is completely photogenic and appealingly open. You can sense Panahi’s directorial interest in him. They step outside into the mayhem of the Nowruz celebration, where a giant bonfire crackles beyond the gates of the apartment complex. The college kid says to Panahi, in a tone of gentle concern, “Don’t come outside, Mr. Panahi. They will see your camera.”

In early September came the news that co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb has been banned from traveling to Toronto for the screening of This Is Not a Film. Mirtahmasb appears very briefly at the end of This Is Not a Film, in Panahi’s iPhone footage, and Mirtahmasb jokes that he will be arrested just for that. He was. On September 17, 2011, Mirtahmasb was arrested in Iran along with five other filmmakers. He is said to be detained in Evin Prison. Nobody knows for sure. Crackdowns continue.

This Is Not a Film, then, is one of the most powerful political films ever made. The mere fact of the film’s existence is a miracle, and its cumulative effect is overwhelming. It is a modern “De Profundis”, a scream of rage. It is a glimpse of an artist doing what he should be doing, which is planning his next project, a project that will never be made now. But he wants us to get a feel for it anyway.

Ultimately, This Is Not a Film is a cry of pain, first from Panahi and then from us, at all we have lost with the silencing of this man.

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