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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.
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Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
2011 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Looking at the phonetic Persian title of Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest film, Bé omid é didar, I guessed that Good Bye was losing something in translation. Thanks to an Iranian friend of mine, I learned that the Persian title literally translates as “hope to see you again.” Since Rasoulof has been sentenced to serve a one-year prison term and a 20-year ban on filmmaking for “assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime,” the more literal translation offers a hopeful note about his release. However, given the trajectory of the film itself, I really don’t blame the translators for the more hopelessly final message they decided upon for the English version.
It would be a mistake not to see Rasoulof’s situation in the plight of his protagonist Noora (Leyla Zareh), a lawyer banned from practicing because of her civil rights activities and drawing increasingly sinister attention from the police. But Noora’s problems are compounded by her gender: women are not allowed to drive, cannot get medical procedures or check into a hotel without a male family member’s consent, and cannot take charge of simple transactions, like getting a security deposit back, without being harassed or cheated. Noora needs to carry out all these activities because she cannot take life in Iran anymore and is trying to find a means of escape.
Noora has found a fixer who advises his clients the best way to accomplish their goal, and withholds their visa if they don’t pay up everything they owe him. Noora has been advised to get pregnant, which she has achieved before the start of the film, and to be sure the baby is born out of the country. The fixer has arranged for her to give a paper at an international conference, going so far as to have the paper written for her.
The first sign of trouble is a premonition Noora has that there is something wrong with her pregnancy. After telling the fixer’s imperious secretary that she wants an abortion, the secretary scolds her that her boss has chosen the right way for her to escape and that she must go through with it. After a while, her fears are overcome by her growing attachment to her unborn daughter, nourished by ultrasound images and conversations with her husband, who has been stripped of his livelihood as a journalist and sent to do construction work in a southern desert.
Rasoulof’s tense film slowly narrows the ground on which Noora stands. One day, two policemen show up at her apartment and ask if she has a satellite receiver on her television. She answers yes, but that it doesn’t work. In one of the many small but telling touches Rasoulof supplies, one officer enters her home after putting plastic bags over his shoes to keep from tracking in dirt, while the other stands in the hall and writes her a ticket. How did they know she had the device? Soon thereafter, she gets into the narrow elevator of her building, and is crowded by two policemen who take her for a ride up and down the elevator shaft. They tell her they need to search her home, and once inside it, never let her out of their sight, even when her visiting mother returns to the apartment and makes them tea.
More bad news awaits Noora, including that her husband is having doubts about leaving Iran. So determined is Noora to escape her oppression that she tells him she will go anyway and let her daughter give her a new life. Shortly before her departure, she meets a friend of her husband who tries to dissuade her from leaving on his behalf. She tells him, “If one feels like a foreigner in one’s one country, it is better to leave and be a foreigner in a foreign country.” All he says before he walks off is “See you later.” What are the odds that he will?
There are many obstacles to Noora’s plan, but by far the worst is not knowing whom to trust. She has to work with a number of people—including her husband’s former mistress—to tend to her pregnancy and her plan of escape. Some of them are kind, some are hostile, others are all business, but any of them could betray her. When her husband has a change of heart, we know he could rat her out to keep her with him. Evidence of husbands and wives informing on each other in other repressive societies, such as East Germany, is rampant. But Noora’s behavior is more like an animal trying to gnaw its own leg off to be free of a trap; she has no choice.
Word is that the production of Good Bye was very fraught, and that much of the shooting and assembly was done clandestinely. Given the scrutiny Rasoulof must have been under, as evidenced by the meticulousness of the outrages he shows Noora enduring, this must be true. Yet the film is beautifully composed, with an emphasis on right angles that showcase how boxed in Noora is and subtly noirish lighting that suggests a person trapped by fate.
One interesting detail is a pet turtle Noora keeps in a small aquarium. When the aquarium starts to leak, she puts it on a tray. Tiring of emptying the water from the tray, she fills it with more water and puts the turtle on it. We watch the turtle struggle to get over the side as we hear Noora doing something in the background. Ah, she has been fashioning a barrier of newspaper to tape around the tray to keep her pet from escaping. Yet one day, it isn’t there, and a search of the living room yields nothing. On a realistic level, the turtle could have gotten down a hole, or it could have been taken, perhaps by the someone who informed the police about Noora’s satellite receiver. On a metaphorical level, the turtle’s existence in its faulty home is a mirror of Noora’s existence in her toxic country. Its puzzling disappearance is a foreboding of what might happen to Noora, perhaps even suggesting that she will be one of the dissidents who, we learn during the film, is hanged in secret.
These are extremely desperate times for filmmakers in Iran. Good Bye is an incredible act of courage and an artistic triumph by one of Iran’s most gifted and persecuted directors. Show your support for his art and voice by seeing Good Bye and bearing witness to the suffering underway today.
Good Bye will screen Tuesday, October 11, 3:15 p.m., Thursday, October 13, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 2:10 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
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The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
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Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
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