DVD Review: This Is Not A Film (2011) – Iran, Farsi language, 75 min. by David Calleja
What do you get when two directors get bored and cannot agree on what they want to do? They record each other filming and send a powerful message in the process. This, however, is no ordinary filming session.
You can physically imprison a person’s movements and thoughts, but the most innovative individuals will always find a unique way of expressing themselves.
In a career spanning more than 20 years, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi has delivered insightful movies such as Crimson Gold and Offside. But This Is Not A Film, a documentary chronicling a day in the life of Panahi while under house arrest following a raid on his apartment in 2010, may be his best remembered work. It may also be his last.
Allegedly downloaded onto a USB stick and smuggled out of Iran in a cake box bound for France, This Is Not A Film illustrates how devoted Panahi is to film making, in spite of the risks and battles he has encountered with authorities, the legal system, and his own emotions. It offers a simple view into his sheltered existence, hurriedly making phone calls to people wishing to visit him, checking out news updates on heavily censored websites, or feeding the family’s pet iguana, activities which occur while Panahi is waiting for his appeal against a prison sentence and lengthy ban on making films, writing screenplays, and giving interviews.
Having been refused permission for a film and subjected to a raid on his Tehran apartment by authorities, Panahi refuses to be silenced, explaining to his co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb that he will read and act out the screenplay in a space no larger than the rug in his living room.
As Panahi re-visits the forbidden film’s script which landed him in trouble, he connects with the plight of his character, a girl who plots to escape from her family home after being refused the chance to study liberal arts at a university in Tehran. He enters into immaculate detail about the character’s emotional distress and descent into madness, shortly before adding that reading a film out is just as effective as making one, and then walking away in frustration. We sense that the ideas flowing from this script would have been a grand finale.
In capturing Panahi’s emotions, Mirtahmasb does well in ensuring that Panahi discusses what is most important, as well as revealing secrets that have made Panahi a leading director. When Panahi is filmed taking images on his iPhone, and then explains the rationale, we learn about his techniques. “Shoot the screen,” Panahi says to Mirthamasb, pointing to his television during a scene of Crimson Gold, a young woman sprinting across the corridors of a building, columns resembling prison bars in the foreground.
“This actress didn’t need to make any certain face to show her anxiety. Those vertical lines in the location…supplement her mental state.” He turns back to his own dilemma of reading his screenplay within the limitations of a rug, posing dilemmas and challenging himself. The professor is at work, with his loyal assistant behind the camera dutifully observing the outcome. Panahi appears as a resolute man, but at the stake the bigger issue of freedom of expression, and he fears as much for the future of the film industry, more so than his own fate.
In his relentless pursuit to leave a footprint with this film, Panahi finds himself behind the camera after Mirtahmasb leaves for the day, striking a conversation with a young garbage collector inside an elevator. As the unassuming young man talks about his life ambitions, Panahi regains his customary seat in control. As the two men exit the elevator, Panahi asks his subject, “What are you going to do when you finish school?” “The first thing I will do is find a place with peace,” the young garbage collector answers back.
It is a wonderful sentiment which presents Panahi with one final chance to record a street scene during Persian New Year fireworks celebrations. That is, until the stark reality re-appears with Panahi being reminded of the possibility of being caught. This sudden ending, leaving viewers in limbo is an appropriate ending considering the sentence faced not just by Panahi and his colleagues, but by anybody who speaks out unfavourably. It reminds us that the phrase ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ is a fictional concept associated only with the magic generated by planet Hollywood.
Call it a film, documentary, effort, or diary captured on camera, the end result is that This Is Not A Film is a powerful snapshot, mirroring what society has become at a time when Iranian movies are gaining more praise worldwide. Sadly, directors risk paying a hefty price for exercising creative licence and daring to challenge the status quo. This is reflected during the closing credits, when nobody, apart from Panahi and Mirthamasb, is publicly named. Panahi is a distinguished film maker whose greater battle is one about human rights, as much as it is about events affecting his own life.
David Calleja is a contributor to the Foreign Policy Journal website. He writes predominately about political and cultural affairs in Southeast Asian countries, and is based in Melbourne, Australia. David’s email address is [email protected]. You can also follow him on Twitter @d_j_calleja