Jafar Panahi: This Is Not a Film

Sevara Pan writes this review: “I think, I should remove this cast and throw it away,” utters Jafar Panahi. “Do you remember film Mirror? he continues. “Mirror was my second film. It was about a little girl Mina, whose mother hasn’t shown up to pick her from school, she then tries to go home on her own. She tries to find the way. She gets on the bus and as the bus goes, she realizes that she is going the wrong direction. Eventually, the girl can’t take it anymore. She takes out the cast and throws it away. She says that she wants to be herself. ‘What you’ve done is a lie, wails Mina. ‘I do know my way home. I don’t understand what you want from me. I want to get off.’ Right now, I am in a similar position as Mina,” says the Iranian filmmaker. “Somehow I must remove my cast and throw it away.” Grotesquely, it is Panahi, himself, who has to hide behind the curtains. Notwithstanding the shut-in, in 2011 Panahi circumvented the ban through a technicality. He would “tell” the film instead of “making” it. So he invited his friend, a documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, over to his apartment to record him reading aloud his unrealized screenplay. As if to gibe the absurdity of the governmenal restrictions, they titled the oeuvre This Is Not a Film. “Not a film” was not credited apropos. Panahi shared a vague “an effort by” credit with Mirahsamb; the remaining credits are redacting blanks to keep their fellow colleagues out of the harm’s way, followed by an eminent statement “Dedicated to Iranian Filmmakers.” Shot in 4 days for €3,200 on a digital camcorder and, partly, an iPhone, the film was

eventually smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden inside a cake, as the legend has it, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. In December 2012 it was shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards.

The film opens with the scene of Panahi having breakfast. He dials some number and starts, what feels like, an illicit conversation, “What did you do about that thing?” Panahi asks. “I am about to find out more and I am trying to talk with a couple of guys. Actually, I am waiting for the right moment to start,” Mirahsamb responds. “I can’t say much on the phone,” says Panahi. “Can you come to my place? […] Just come over. I have a few ideas I want to tell you about. […] Just don’t tell anyone that you are coming here, alright?”

Next, Panahi is on the phone with Ms. Gheyrat, his lawyer, who conveys that in political cases like his, the appeals judge is not going to acquit him; the punishment might be reduced and complementary punishment might be taken back but that would be it. Having discussed the ins and outs of his case with the lawyer, Panahi proceeds to “read” the film that was never made. But instead of plain reading that would “bore everybody”, he decides to construct the conditions and enact the characters. Persian rug is turned into a film set. Tape has found its new utility; it is used in marking out the floor plan of his heroine’s room. Akin to 1960s pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, Panahi too works “in the gap between life and art” using the found objects of everyday life in innovative combinations. The film Panahi is trying to tell us is about a young girl Maryam, who, much like him, has been consigned to life as a shut-in. “The girl has hollow eyes,” he says. “It looked like she’d had a life, full of hardships. And she has a very nice Isfahani accent.” One shot after another, he goes on describing exactly how the shots would go, what they would look like, their duration. “Next shot,” he explains. “Take this place to be the bathroom and the camera is behind the bathroom door. We hear the usual sounds from inside the bathroom. Then the door opens and for the first time we see the girl who has shaven head. […]” Having become a prisoner of conscience himself, he passionately acts out an unproduced screenplay on the theme of incarceration but then almost breaks down with anguish and frustration. The scenario’s similarity to his own house arrest and his creative neutering besets him and with a mounting sense of futility he asks rhetorically, “If we can tell a film, then why make a film?” Standing on a terrace of an exquisitely furnished flat high up in an apartment block, with a giant crane hovering outside amidst the Tehran skyline, he smokes in silence. The silence is interrupted by a ring bell. It is food delivery. “What is going on outside?” Panahi asks the delivery boy. “Nothing yet, it has just started. It will soon get intense.” Unfolding against the backdrop of Persian New Year and the Fireworks Wednesday celebrations, the fireworks will later on sound like gunshots. Soon, we hear that the government denounced Fireworks Wednesday as unreligious. That conflict and tension, we hear, is at the root of the blazing mix of celebration and unrest, that is both haunting and eerie.

In This Is Not a Film, Panahi accomplished to make the familiar strange. Deftly implementing the Brechtian technique of the “alienation effect,” he therefore forced the audience to question the social realities presented to them. By leaving in “behind-the-scene” footage with remarks about the light, ambience, or over-saturation, Panahi disrupted the notion of the fourth wall, hence compelling the audience to face the action.

Panahi, as a pioneer of Iranian neorealism, brings elements of true life in the stories he portrays. Using DVD clips from his films Crimson Gold and The Circle, Panahi shows us that the most serendipitous moments were improvised, took place out of chance. Filmed in long takes on location, he frequently used amateur actors. “When you are telling, you must be telling a bunch of details. But with an amateur actor, like Hossein (Crimson Gold), the details won’t be predictable in advance at all. You write some things but when you go on location and the amateur enters, he does the directing for you. He leads you to how you explain the film.” Such moments, as Panahi explains, cannot be scripted. You need freedom for this to happen and freedom is what Panahi doesn’t have. “Ok, come and look. You see this sequence? Here location is doing the directing. This actress didn’t need to make any certain face to show her anxiety. Those vertical lines in the location. These lines supplement her mental state. It all works out perfectly. Now how can I really express myself inside that boundary with the lines I drew? How can I tell the sense and feeling in this kind of film? Not possible.”

The film reaches its climax as Panahi encounters the trash collector in the hallway, a struggling student of the arts, Hassan. The filmmaker grabs his camera and follows the young man on the rest of his rounds, engaging him in a conversation and documenting him at work. “After I finish school, I have lots of things to do,” Hassan shares. “You know, what I’ll do first thing? First, I’ll be looking to find a place to have peace. […]” As the two men approach the gates, beyond which one could observe the revelers leaping over bonfires, Hassan shouts out, “Mr. Panahi, please don’t go outside. They’ll see you with the camera.” Panahi can go no further. What a tragic ending after all, an image of an uncrossable barrier.

I strongly believe that the power of This Is Not a Film will outlast Panahi’s tribulations. This film is a statement of creative resistance and act of defiance under political duress. But more than anything, it is a handmade piece of filmmaking about the bone-deep necessity to create and vocation to tell stories regardless of any predicament or legal restrictions. This is a moving and daring film that brings to light the case of undefeated stoicism and the unstoppable flow of creativity. When hands are tied, budget is nil, and equipment is minimal, Panahi makes a film against the odds. This film stays with you: fragmented lines, remains of tape, and shards of man’s dignity salvaged in a miniature display on a lavish Persian rug.

After the release of Panahi’s another film Offside, a feminist protest group in Iran declared: “We don’t want to be offside.” What an eerie parallel his films have to his life. In his Skype appearance at Karlovy Vary last month, Panahi said, “Unfortunately I have lost that family, but my heart is with you. It is very painful for me to not be a part of society, because I make film about society. […] And now I live in an absolute world of melancholy.”

Iran, 2011, 78 mins.


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