(Dir. Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)
The Defiant One
For better or worse, This Is Not a Film has become defined by its unlikely release – smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive buried within a cake and delivered to that annual gathering of artistic elitism, the Cannes Film Festival. With a back-story that elaborate and sympathetic, it’s no surprise Jafar Panahi was in everyone’s thoughts and prayers at that year’s festival. And, for good reason: the presence of Panahi’s “film” and unmistakable absence of its creator appropriately highlighted the injustice that continues to affect filmmakers across Iran by censoring, banning, and even imprisoning artists for exercising their creative vision. Thus, This Is Not a Film feels like an important film, and it is. It also draws attention to a political struggle admittedly greater than itself. Therefore, it may prove easy to view it solely as an important statement, but that would be dismissively reductive. Even without the cake and the subsequent imprisonment of Panahi, This Is Not a Film remains a crucial and painfully relevant project based on its content alone.
Notably brief and brilliantly self-referential, Panahi’s non-film defies categorization and focuses on a day in the life of the filmmaker himself who tires of his surroundings living under house arrest. Prior to the events of the film, the Iranian government sentenced Panahi to at least six years in prison and a twenty-year ban on filmmaking. Having appealed the verdict, the director awaits the appellate courts’ final decision with the ban fully in effect. The first few still shots of This Is Not a Film establish this premise and feature Panahi eating breakfast, using the bathroom, and talking on the phone – the effects of this debilitating house arrest are already felt in the mundane tasks that occupy our subject’s time and the severe lack of varied camera angles (all intentional, of course).
After a discouraging conversation with his lawyer dashing any hopes of a revoked prison sentence, there is a noticeable change in Panahi. He begins to address the camera directly and confesses that most of what we have seen up until this point has been dishonest. He recalls a sequence in one of his earlier films The Mirror when the subject of that film breaks character and declares that she is finished with acting. The little girl defiantly removes her costume and storms out of the frame. Panahi admits to feeling this way: in desperate need of casting off the façade to create something of meaning again. To accomplish this, Panahi convinces his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a fellow Iranian filmmaker, to visit him in his personal prison and help him shoot a pseudo-film.
The film changes pace with another voice behind the camera. Panahi frequently addresses his friend Mirtahmasb who brings fresh camera work to the project. Forbidden from standing behind the camera himself, Panahi cleverly decides to direct a shelved film in front of the camera playing the parts of director and actor. A roll of tape builds a makeshift set on his large oriental rug, and an open-backed chair stands in for the frame of a window. He reads from his own screenplay and describes a scenario featuring a lonesome young woman trapped in her own room with nothing but a small window to gaze at the free world outside (the first hint that something deeper is going on here – the screenplay suspiciously resembles his current predicament). The director enacts the scene, and the result is quite impressive in what we as the audience are able to envision. It also gives us a rather inspiring glimpse into the creative thought processes of an artist as the preparation for staging a scene unfolds. The moment proves bittersweet: part way through his role-playing, he recognizes the absurdity and futility of his actions. “If we can tell a film, why make a film?” the dejected filmmaker bemoans. The emotion is real, and the assertion is troubling – a painter without an easel, a musician without an instrument, a filmmaker without a set.
Abandoning his makeshift set, Panahi moves on to other menial activities: feeding his daughter’s iguana (the director’s stand-in cell mate), fiddling with his iPhone on the balcony, flipping through channels on the TV. As night encroaches, Panahi and Mirtahmasb sit down across from each other at the kitchen table. Mirtahmasb’s camera continues to rest on his subject, but so as to return the favor Panahi begins filming his collaborator with his iPhone. The point of view switches to Panahi’s, and we see Mirtahmasb for the first time through a pixilated, digitalized screen. The shift is jolting but surprisingly apt. The frame bounces back and forth between the amateurish image capturing of a smart phone and the clearer picture of his DV camcorder until his friend decides to retire for the evening.
What follows is a startlingly unique sequence that provides for one of the most memorable filmic scenes of the year. Having walked Mirtahmasb to the door, Panahi bumps into a young man collecting trash for the apartment complex. The man becomes the director’s new subject who he follows into the elevator and interviews regarding his many side jobs to fund his art studies. Seemingly enamored by the possibility of a fresh face to shoot, the filmmaker rides with the man all the way to the ground floor. As the door swings open, and the overwhelming sound of fireworks and images of mysterious, bright flames burst into the frame, we are given an intoxicating, if brief, look at the outside world teeming with possibility for artistic expression. The trash collector wheels his large barrel toward the compound gate and warns Panahi of being caught with a camera.
Here This Is Not a Film ends as the noise of the bustling street and the screen fade to black. It’s an evocative final scene. Panahi stands on the brink of imprisonment and freedom. The streets of Tehran are at his fingertips, but the certainty of sealing his fate ultimately keeps him from crossing the fiery threshold. But, even if he remains trapped in this holding cell, he remembers his friend Mirtahmasb’s parting notion that evening to always keep the camera on. More than just an obligation to express his artistry, Panahi also acknowledges the necessity to expose and highlight the injustices bent on keeping him and others like him down. Daringly unique, effectively genre-less, and pertinent, This Is Not a Film stands as a welcome reminder of why we need film – maybe now more than ever.