In the wake of the “Green Revolution” in Iran, the crackdown on subversive voices has extended to a filmmaking community that was already, in even the best of times, working within the severe constraints of government censors. In the past, scripts were rejected and films were banned, but now the actions of the Culture Ministry are much more punitive: Back in January 2011, the agency killed the House Of Cinema, the only organization to support independent filmmaking in the country, and replaced it with a committee that would approve projects that adhere to strict Islamic guidelines. The garden of Iranian cinema had always grown through cracks in the pavement, but those cracks have been paved over with fresh concrete.
In December 2010, the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison, plus a 20-year ban from shooting movies, writing screenplays, giving interviews, or leaving the country. (He’ll be 70 when the sentence expires.) Having spent a career testing the censors with his films (The Circle, Offside, and Crimson Gold, among others) and projects that were never allowed to go before the camera, Panahi openly supported the Green Movement and Mir Hossein Mousavi, and was arrested for merely intending to collude and propagandize against the Islamic Republic. Provocative gestures like this one, where he waved a green scarf at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival, had to figure into why he was singled out:
The story of how Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film surfaced at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival sounds like a movie in itself—and a more conventionally exciting movie at that. Shot and edited over 10 days in Panahi’s apartment, while he was under house arrest, the film was smuggled into France on a USB thumb drive hidden inside a cake. (Also hidden inside the cake: a delicious raspberry glaze.) True to form, the not-a-film stands as an act of defiance from an artist who we can see has lot to lose: the wife he confers with on the phone; the family whose pictures adorn the walls; the adornments of a spacious high-rise apartment with a flat-screen TV, a flower-filled balcony with a bird’s-eye view of Tehran, and a pet iguana named Igi. It also doubles as a painful lament from a director who can no longer experience the magic of watching his work come to life in ways he never could have anticipated.
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The title is half-true, half-cheeky. Under the 20-year filmmaking ban, Panahi cannot write or direct anything, so this unscripted thingamabob was shot by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a documentarian who occasionally speaks with Panahi behind the camera, and was himself jailed for three months in 2011 for working on a documentary with the Persian BBC network. The action pointedly takes place entirely on “Fireworks Wednesday,” a Persian New Year’s celebration that the Iranian authorities try, with little success, to squash through checkpoints and additional security forces around the city. Yet Iranian films have a history of confusing documentary and fiction—Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 Close-Up, a part-staged and part-real look at a man who tried to impersonate director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is the classic example—and This Is Not A Film is full of tricky contrivances, from the compressed time span to conversations and scenes that clearly aren’t spontaneous. Just don’t call them “written” or “directed.”
This Is Not A Film indisputably stands as a courageous act of underground filmmaking, and it’s fair to suspect that the raves it’s received across the festival circuit have more to do with Panahi’s defiance than his creation. But while his 75-minute statement occasionally dips into mundane doodling, like shots of Panahi preparing tea or screwing around with his iPhone camera, This Is Not A Film is more purposeful than it seems, a message in a bottle from a persecuted artist who wants to share his thoughts on filmmaking, the state of his appeal, his unrealized screenplay, and, in an astonishing final shot, the political restlessness that still burns within the country.
The centerpiece of the film finds Panahi blocking scenes from a project he may never be allowed to make. He’s neither writing (it’s already been written) nor directing (there are no actors and no proper staging), but it’s a remarkable window into the filmmaker’s mind as he lays out his vision shot by shot. Another of Panahi’s stories of women in confinement, the film within a film is about a young woman whose acceptance into a university arts program enrages her conservative father, who locks her into the house when he and his wife leave on vacation. She tries and fails to get out in time for registration in Tehran, but enters into conversation with people outside her bedroom window and front door. The way Panahi describes it, the girl’s bedroom sounds like the stadium holding pen that keeps his heroines from watching the soccer game in Offside.
We’ll likely never know. Panahi covers his area rug in masking tape, runs through the first few shots, and shows a few iPhone photos of the location he scouted for the apartment and the two actresses competing for the part. But he stops short out of frustration: A film is not a film until it’s made, and even a detailed run-through of the script doesn’t account for the strange, beautiful alchemy that happens on set. Picking through his DVD shelves—which include a copy of the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Buried—Panahi digs up scenes in his previous films The Mirror and Crimson Gold where his non-professional actors brought something to a scene that was beyond his imagination.
Maybe it’s that lack of surprise that holds This Is Not A Film back from the greatness of Panahi’s best work. It’s right there in the title: The animating force that brings films to life largely isn’t present—can’t be present, since he can’t make them—so Panahi can only tell stories that have to take root in viewers’ imaginations. His frustration and heartbreak over this fact is ours, too, and we’re mostly left to marvel over his persistent impulse to keep on shooting no matter the consequences. From his home and from his heart, This Is Not A Film is a vital record of everything he stands to lose.