By Steven Erickson | Press Play February 28, 2012 at 9:36AM
In the past two years, the Iranian government has moved from merely banning films (most of which were allowed to be released internationally) to arresting actors and filmmakers. Jafar Panahi is the highest-profile director to suffer such treatment. In 2010, his request to travel to the Berlin Film Festival was denied. He was arrested in March of that year, purportedly because he was making a film inspired by the protests following Iran’s 2009 election. In May, he was released on bail. In December, he was sentenced to six years in jail. Furthermore, he was banned from directing films, writing screenplays, giving interviews (even to Iranian media) and leaving the country for 20 years. While he appealed the sentence, he lost it in October 2011. Although he’s currently out of jail, he could be sent back at any moment.
Panahi’s latest film, This Is Not A Film, requires such background information. It was made while he was under house arrest. While this is obvious, it’s never explicitly mentioned. Co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was arrested himself when he tried to attend last fall’s Toronto Film Festival. Panahi’s first feature-length documentary, it’s a work of reduced means, to say the least. Several scenes were shot by Panahi with an iPhone. It wears its poverty as a badge of honor.
Despite the American and Israeli government’s sabre-rattling towards Iran’s nuclear program, Western interest in Iranian cinema has never been higher. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation has grossed more than two million dollars in the U.S., more than any other Iranian film has ever achieved, and just won an Oscar. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has recently announced a Farhadi retrospective for April. I hope some of this interest rubs off on Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s film, but it’s closer to Jonas Mekas’ diary films than the more familiar Chekhovian sensibility of A Separation.
Who would have thought that a little girl running away from a camera crew would lead Iranian director Jafar Panahi on a path culminating in his arrest and 20-year ban from filmmaking? That moment happened in his second film, The Mirror, which received a cursory American release in 1997. At the time, no one perceived it as a political statement, perhaps because it fit so snugly in the then-current Iranian vogue for neo-realist films about cute children. In retrospect, one can see that it was the start of Panahi’s string of films about rebellious girls and young women. His next film, The Circle, would make his overtly feminist politics a lot clearer.
Until now, Offside, made in 2006, has struck me as Panahi’s most interesting and successful film. It points out the contradictions in Iran’s repressive regime: the ways in which its policies can produce the opposite results for which they’re aiming. As critic Michael Sicinski has suggested, banning women from many areas of Iranian life, including male-only soccer matches, has led to a generation of masculine girls, even if they’re not transgender or lesbian. The climax of Offside suggests that one can reconcile Iranian nationalism and feminism, leading Cahiers du Cinéma editor Jean-Michel Frodon to conclude that Panahi was pandering to the Iranian government. Alas, even if Frodon’s cynical thesis were true, it didn’t work, as Offside, like The Circle and Crimson Gold, was banned in Iran.
The central conceit of This Is Not A Film is that it presents a day in Panahi’s life, although I doubt the entire film was actually shot in one day. On a moment-to-moment basis, it feels casually made, but its structure is carefully planned. It depicts him eating breakfast and talking on the phone with his lawyer and fellow filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. (She seems to be suffering a period of idleness herself, although it’s unclear if the law has anything to do with it.) When Mirtahmasb shows up, Panahi talks about his unproduced screenplays and reads from one, treating his living room floor as a set. It deals with a teenage girl prevented from attending college and eventually locked in her room by a religious family. Any similarities to Panahi’s current situation are entirely coincidental, of course. Outside, the city of Tehran prepares for Iranian New Year. Fireworks begin going off, and a neighbor asks Panahi to take care of her dog. Eventually, Panahi ventures into the elevator, in the company of the building’s janitor, and the film ends with him apparently on the verge of heading outside.
Melancholy as it is, This Is Not A Film is no pity party. It evokes ennui and anxiety without ever being boring itself. Within a compact 75-minute running time, it suggests what it’s like to suffer house arrest. Panahi browses the Internet, but complains that most websites are blocked by the government’s filters and the few that aren’t are painfully bland or propagandistic. He initially seems enthusiastic about reading out his unproduced screenplays for Mirtahmasb’s camera, but he eventually grows disillusioned, finding it an unsatisfying substitute for making them. (Ironically, of course, he is indeed making a film while reading them out loud for the camera.) This film’s very title mocks his 20-year ban from filmmaking, even as it points to the technical limitations with which Panahi and Mirtahmasb had to work.
Understandably, This Is Not A Film has a very raw look. When Mirtahmasb leaves Panahi’s apartment, no tripod is available; at one point, Panahi tries balancing the camera on a pack of cigarettes. In technical terms, the title is correct. This Is Not A Film brandishes video’s differences from 35mm as a political gesture, even a badge of resistance. (Panahi shoots clips from The MIrror and Crimson Gold off a TV monitor, and the former looks particularly crude.) One suspects that Panahi would have shot the whole film on an iPhone if he had to.
In the unlikely event that Panahi’s travel ban is lifted, The Playlist has reported that he had been offered a deal with Sony and producer Scott Rudin to adapt Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. So far, Panahi’s work seems so intimately tied to Iran, even if it’s highly critical of the country’s government, that it’s hard to imagine him working outside it. The government’s treatment of him suggests that even if he stays out of jail, he’s unlikely to be able to make a large-scale film there again. This Is Not A Film resembles a film made by the hero of Kafka’s The Trial.
Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, Fandor's blog, the Nashville Scene, Film Comment, The Atlantic website and other publications. He has made four short films, the most recent being 2009's "Squawk".