Feb 29, 2012

This Is Not A Film

This shrewdly subversive film by Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who has been sentenced by the Iranian government to six years in jail, and has been banned from directing, writing screenplays, traveling abroad or talking to the media for twenty years, is a cunning little gem of courage and defiance. Apparently, it was spirited out of Iran in a flash drive hidden in a cake, and shown at Cannes last year. I saw it at the New York Film Festival. It is now showing at Film Forum. It is a great film.
In the film, Panahi is under house arrest, unable to work, so he decides to shoot his own reenactment of a movie the regime has forbidden him to make. The movie is about a young girl who gets accepted to study art in the university, but her religious family prevents her from doing so by locking her up in the house; a pretty straightforward metaphor for the cultural repression in Iran today.
Panahi creates the location by delineating it on his living room carpet with masking tape. He describes the action. He talks about how he would shoot it. But he doesn't touch the camera. His son turns it on for him before he leaves in the morning, and he has a documentary filmmaker friend helping him, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, credited as co-director. This poor young man has since been also convicted of espionage, presumably because he worked for the BBC.
Panahi is making his film without making his film. Panahi is alone in the apartment except for a huge pet iguana that slithers around on the bookcases and sofas and enhances the aura of surreality of his newly Kafkian life. Sometimes he talks to his wife on the phone. He steps out into his balcony, talks to people on the phone, gets a delivered lunch, intimates about the mass demonstrations that were happening in Iran at the time. Sometimes he talks to his lawyer on the phone, who tells him his case is very hard to overturn. It is obvious he is not helping his own cause by defying the regime's orders.
When you read about Panahi's circumstances, you imagine This Is Not A Film as some kind of heroic manifesto against artistic repression but This is Not A Film surprises by being a modest but cunning portrait of quiet defiance, with a streak of absurdist humor. Panahi is just a director, not a hero, and all he wants to do is direct. He refrains from agitating. He just stubbornly insists on being who he is. His protest is to continue doing what he was meant to do and to show the irrationality of his oppressors.
Even though it appears to happen over the course of one day and it lasts only 75 minutes, This is Not A Film was actually shot over ten days. It is not a spontaneous, haphazard work. It is carefully thought out and composed. This is as substantial a film and certainly a better film than any mindless $200 million extravaganza. There is something of the surrealism of Magritte in this humble piece of filmmaking. Panahi's professional life has been truncated, which he refuses to accept; he does exactly what he was told not to do, by not exactly doing it. The production resources may be minimal, but the intelligence and the depth of Panahi's concept are brilliant. 
At the end of his day, which increases in defiance as it goes along, Panahi  accompanies the building's super on his rounds as he picks up the garbage. All he is doing is going into the elevator, and his conversation with the super is, like the rest of the movie, a telling glimpse into Iranian society, a sophisticated country that has been abducted by stone age fundamentalists, cowards who arrest artists.
As self effacing as he is, as modest a project as this film seems to be, Panahi's act of defiance is tremendously courageous. He is well aware that some friends may suffer simply by associating with him. His collaborator understands he might be digging his own professional grave. It takes great bravery to defy your captors. 
In my encounters so far with Iranian cinema I have always been struck by its cunning intelligence, a bracing matter of factness, a lack of sentimentality and a fantastic sense of humor, always suffused with great empathy and wisdom. To us in the West, Iran is a very unlikely country to have a world class cinema. But it does, despite or maybe perhaps because it has to continually fight against the stupidity of tyranny. The great Iranian filmmakers are a self-effacing bunch. Their movies are small and economical but their scope is rich. They are subversive not only politically, but also in the very essence of what constitutes a movie. They make masterpieces with very little and they show it is possible to make great films without spending millions or selling your soul to mass idiocy. So it is with this powerful film. 

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