This is Not a Film (2011)
But this is a film!
Jafar Panahi is the celebrated Iranian filmmaker who has made films like The White Balloon and Offside which have antagonized the authorities and added fuel to the fire by carrying out little acts of protest like making fellow jurors at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival sport green scarves to show support for the Green Party.He wants to comment on Iranian society from within and does not fancy leaving the country to practice his art.His consistent baiting of the Ayatollahs has resulted in him being put under house arrest and being banned for filmmaking for 20 years.This is Not a Film is his way of protesting his sentence and to mount international pressure while fulfilling his need to make provocative films.Of all the films that he has made this one is surely the most provocative and will strengthen the resolve of the government to muzzle him further.That it was smuggled out in a USB drive in a cake and won top prize at Cannes only makes him more of a marked man.
Mr Panahi has become a cause célèbre in the international filmmaking circles and his incarceration has lead to condemnation from the whole film community in unison. As he makes this film he is acutely aware that there is tremendous international interest in him.If that interest dies he will live in jail for the next six years and when he comes out at the age of 57,he will not make another film till he is 71. The motivations, aesthetics and politics of this unique work has to placed in context or we can just continue to wax eloquent about the power of this protest piece.
He starts by giving us the image of himself eating breakfast.He has a basket of flat bread and some bottles of dips and preserves.After he eats a couple of morsels he gets a phone call. Since he is on camera he puts his iPhone 3 on speaker.The sound that comes out is crystal clear and recorded perfectly well.There is lack of any ambient sound.Was this scene, like many others, rehearsed? Or were these offscreen dialogues post synched in a Paris studio? We don’t know but I wanted to know.The most tantalizing possibility is that he penned the whole thing meticulously down to a shooting script, the way a true auteur does and dressed up a film as a documentary.
During the next one hour he gives us images of himself getting dressed, talking to several people on the phone including his wife and lawyer, reading from a script and visualizing the scenario by putting yellow tape on the floor to demarcate a small room where the young protagonist of his script lives. Mr Panahi infuses the film with quiet humour, the sight of his daughters pet iguana crawling over him with its sharp nails or the neighbor who is desperately looking for someone to leave her dog with, provides us comic relief.He ends the film with a sequence of great power, the images of which which are highly symbolic of the current Iranian state.As a child Mr. Panahi used to see films on the sly and narrate the stories to his sisters who where not allowed to go to a film theatre. His love for storytelling persists, as is evident from this experiment.
Mr Panahi creates a unique mise-en-scène in this film when he shows us clippings of his past films to create the image of an artist trapped in a cage.This juxtaposition of his previous work which landed him in his current predicament and his ambition to go on telling new stories is a powerful cinematic device.Obviously he is hamstrung by the opulence of his apartment which is at loggerheads with the characters he creates or indeed with the portrait of a filmmaker who stands up for the common man of Iran and is struck down by the authorities.
This is Not a Film is a subversion of both the film and documentary format.While the man behind the camera, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who is actually a documentary filmmaker is trying to make a documentary, the storyteller in Mr Panahi is interested in telling the story of a filmmaker unable to do his job anymore, and casts himself in the title role.Call it a perverted kind of neo-realism.The shot of the crane sweeping the sky in front of his balcony while he stands with his back to the camera in silhouette is pure cinema.It is a highly symbolic shot where the crane seems like the menacing arm of a totalitarian regime reaching for him but missing by a whisker.This is a cat and mouse game that Mr Panahi is playing with the authorities.
I found myself thinking about that other celebrated victim of Iranian intolerance, Salman Rushdie, who has just turned his ordeal into a possibly best selling book, 20 years later.He has constantly courted controversy and perfected the art of playing victim.That he has paid a big price in the process, surviving an assassination attempt or two, is well known.It appears that when some artists find themselves on the wrong side of the authorities they find it more invigorating and rewarding to stay put.
This film is an act of courage but and also a method of negotiation with the authorities.It appears to be an act of artistic defiance but is a continuation his previously successful strategy of using western pressure to have him let off the hook.The political reality in the film, which lurks beneath the tussle between the likes of Mr Panahi and the Ayatollahs, outwardly manifested in anti establishment art and the inconsistent manner that it is dealt with, remains inscrutable.
Even though the title tells us, “This is Not a Film”, this is in fact a very effective film that gets several jobs done with elegance, the worthiest of which is the creation of a unique artistic statement in unique circumstances.It is proof that creative people in general and filmmakers in particular have a pathological need to express themselves.