This Is Not a Film (2011)

Directors: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“He’s still a cheeky boy from South Tehran,” said Narimon Safavi, an Iranian entrepreneur and philanthropist living in Chicago who participated in a panel discussion after a showing of This Is Not a Film. That statement may explain why of all the film artists in Iran who have been under official sanction by the government, Jafar Panahi is both heavily persecuted and the most visible face and voice of the opposition. The scrappy director has defied Iranian censors for years, and when he tried to shoot an unapproved script with fellow director-in-trouble Mohammad Rasoulof, both men were arrested; Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, and is awaiting the call to report to prison. This Is Not a Film, a sarcastically titled movie if ever there was one, continues Panahi’s long-standing practice of doing exactly the opposite of what the Iranian government tells him to do.

This Is Not a Film, famously smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, chronicles one day in the life of Panahi as he tries to make the best of his house arrest. A stationary camera sits opposite Panahi as he has breakfast and talks on the phone to family members who are going out to deliver a New Year’s gift to his mother. He also speaks with fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb in vagaries about coming by and to the attorney who is appealing his conviction. After Mirtahmasb’s arrival and off-camera positioning behind the camera, Panahi talks mournfully about the next film he was going to make. He decides to tell the story by showing how he would have cast it, blocked it, and shot it, and starts laying masking tape on his Persian rug to show where the walls, stairs, and hallways would be. He continues the living storyboard approach until gloom descends: “If we could just tell stories, we wouldn’t need to make films.” It’s clear that Panahi is a filmmaker through and through; when he tells Mirtahmasb to cut, the documentary director tells him he’s not supposed to be directing. This sardonic joke both undermines the title of the film, shows concern for what might happen to Panahi for violating the ban, and emphasizes that the loss of his vocation may be the worse of the two parts of his sentence.

This Is Not a Film carries on in the tradition of many Iranian films in exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality. Although it is primarily a documentary, edits have been made, the first sign that there is some shaping going on. The day chosen to do the filming, New Year, introduces the sound of fireworks that could be gunfire, adding some “narrative” intrigue to the proceedings. Comic moments punctuate the day as we hear Panahi talking to Igi and discover a pet iguana in the home. When it later climbs a set of bookshelves, an entranced Mirtahmasb follows it with the camera.

By the last act, the sun has set, and New Year’s fireworks light up the sky as a television news reader announces an imminent ban on New Year celebrations as not being supported by scripture. Mirtahmasb gets up to leave, and Panahi opens the door, only to find a young man just outside it who is there to collect Panahi’s garbage. Both he and we are startled. Mirtahmasb gets on the elevator and leaves, and the scene changes in a way that could have been scripted. Was this encounter prearranged or spontaneous? We can’t be sure, but certainly Panahi knows that the garbage is collected at a certain time each day, supposedly by the young man’s sister, so there was bound to be some interaction at just the moment Mirtahmasb chooses to leave. In fact, Panahi actually spends some time forestalling his colleague’s departure; I took this delaying to be a desire not to be alone at night, but it might simply have been a ploy to ensure the transition to the next phase of the film.

This last phase is important because Panahi, who had been bending the rule about making a film by shooting video with his iPhone, goes into the kitchen and picks up the camera Mirtahmasb returned to its spot, a clear violation of the ban. He takes it into the elevator with the young man and questions him about what he does to make money and his schooling as they descent one floor at a time to pick up garbage on each floor. When they reach the bottom, Panahi follows the young man outside the building until he is told to stay back lest he be seen by the police patrolling the streets. The final image is of a fire outside the apartment block gates, an ominous image that paradoxically coordinates with earlier shots of fireworks demonstrating happiness for the New Year. Given the limits placed upon these directors, This Is Not a Film is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to the spirit of creativity that can free the imprisoned, making people like Panahi especially dangerous to the control of the Iranian regime.

After the film, Prof. Hamid Naficy of Northwestern University, author of the four-volume A Social History of Iranian Cinema, and Milos Stehlik, founder/director of Facets Multimedia, joined Safavi in a discussion of the “nonfilm” and the state of Iranian cinema. With the success of A Separation (2011), director Asghar Farhadi is being offered opportunities to make films abroad, and the closure of the House of Cinema makes it likely that he and other directors being wooed away from Iran will leave. The panelists agree that expatriate Iranian films are likely to be different from those dissident films directors like Panahi have been obstinate in continuing to make. Stehlik expressed the belief that just as a blossoming Chinese cinema was stopped in its tracks by government crackdowns, Iranian cinema was “finished.” Naficy disagreed because he believes the incredible vitality and recognition of Iranian cinema as among the best in the world will be hard to destroy, and points to Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (2010) as a superior effort that shows directors have not been universally cowed by the government.

A discussion about Abbas Kiarostami’s “retreat” into personal films prompted me to ask about his Shirin (2008), which seems to continue the ongoing dialogue about women’s rights in Iran. Safavi and Naficy gave an enlightening perspective on the film. For Safavi, the film was nostalgic in that it employs so many actresses he grew up watching who have been banned from working in Iran, and celebrates them as highly capable actresses. Naficy added that to show women in full-face close-up was also an act of defiance against the Islamic state’s enforced modesty that has made such shots rare in Iranian films.

A representative from Amnesty International USA had the last word. Apparently, the Iranian government is quite concerned about international opinion and actually monitors how many people show up to screenings of and write about This Is Not a Film—it is thought that international interest and pressure has, in fact, been responsible in part for Panahi remaining out of prison. She suggested that people who want to do more to help Panahi and other persecuted Iranians go to Amnesty’s website or the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to get educated and take action.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    19th/04/2012 to 7:16 am

    “This Is Not a Film carries on in the tradition of many Iranian films in exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality.”

    I completely agree, and like you I have the highest regard for this astonishing documentary and the miracle of it’s very existence. Panahi’s previous time behind bars was a disgraceful affair, and this confirmation of in-house imprisonment, caught on film against all odds, shows the director in disarming mode, one whose humanity is more resonating than the politics that of course intrudes in the earlier phone conversation. The iguana Iggi is a big hit, as is the entire sequence of the proposed baby sitting. There was a local film professor of Iranian decent also at the Film Forum when the film (despite the title disclaimer. Ha!) was shown, and the discussion was spirited. The film has upped Panahi’s profile and has again shown the world the sword of an oppressive regime. Excellent essay of an essential work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/04/2012 to 8:03 am

    Thanks, Sam! This was the film I most wanted to see this year, and I was not disappointed. The ingenuity and courage it took to create it still astound me, and the panel discussion was one of the best I have attended. This film seems to bring out the best in everyone – except the Iranian government!

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