‘This Is Not a Film’: The extinguishing of Jafar Panahi’s career, for real, and right before your eyes
Context is required for This Is Not a Film.
Award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested on March 10, 2010, on suspicion that he had been making a film critical of the regime. International outcry was immediate. The Cannes Film Festival happened to be going on at the time, and Jafar Panahi had been chosen to be on the jury. As a protest, his chair was left open, and Juliette Binoche, Abbas Kiarostami and others expressed their outrage and sadness, in words that went round the world.
Panahi went on hunger strike. The pressure intensified, and Iran released him on bail. He awaited the verdict for another eight or nine months, and on December 20, 2010, the sentence came down. He was charged with “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” and was given a six-year prison sentence as well as a 20-year ban on filmmaking. (A younger filmmaker colleague, Mohammad Rasoulof, received the same sentence.) Additionally, Panahi will not be allowed to travel or give interviews.
It is a death sentence for his art. Panahi had been harassed by Iranian authorities for many years, due to the explicit social messages in his films (many of which have to do with the position of women in Iran).
International pressure has at least helped to keep a spotlight on the situation for Panahi, as well as other imprisoned and harassed Iranian artists. (I hosted an Iranian Film Festival on my site, and got contributions by many different film writers.) But the prospects do not look good. Panahi is currently in prison.
At the opening ceremony for this year's Berlinale Film Festival, Jury president Isabella Rossellini read an open letter from Panahi that he had somehow managed to get into her hands.
Panahi's letter, the entirety of which can be read here, closes with:
Ultimately, the reality of my verdict is that I must spend six years in jail. I’ll live for the next six years hoping that my dreams will become reality. I wish my fellow filmmakers in every corner of the world would create such great films that by the time I leave the prison I will be inspired to continue to live in the world they have dreamed of in their films. So from now on, and for the next twenty years, I’m forced to be silent. I’m forced not to be able to see, I’m forced not to be able to think, I’m forced not to be able to make films. I submit to the reality of the captivity and the captors. I will look for the manifestation of my dreams in your films, hoping to find in them what I have been deprived of.
However, This Is Not a Film has arrived. Co-directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, it was shot on Panahi's iPhone, in part, as well as a film camera, brought to the table by Mirtahmasb. The title is an obvious joke, a phony reassurance to the Iranian authorities who have forbidden Panahi to make films that what they have made here is not a "film" at all.
This Is Not a Film was smuggled into France inside a cake, to premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It is a "day in the life" of Jafar Panahi as he awaits the verdict from his lawyer. He hangs around in his luxurious Tehran apartment. His wife and daughter are away. He takes care of a giant lizard named Igi, who crawls over bookcases, and couches, and Panahi himself. Shot during the Iranian Nowruz celebration, the sound of fireworks outside are a constant in the background, giving a violent undertone to the mostly benign images of Panahi making tea and eating breakfast. The footage is unremarkable, at first, just a stationary camera placed on a surface pointing at Panahi. We watch him talk to his lawyer on the phone. She tells him that a prison sentence is definite, but she hopes that the 20-year ban won't happen. She wonders if internal pressure would help, but Panahi resists that. He doesn't want to put his colleagues in the way of any more trouble. Meanwhile, he puts in a call to a friend (Mirtahmasb), and asks him to come over, bringing his camera. He can't say more on the phone.
Mirtahmasb arrives (off-camera) and sets up the camera in the kitchen. Panahi talks to the camera about the film he was planning on making when he got arrested. He holds the script in his hands, and says he would like to talk through the script, and describe the film that he would have created. He says, "I might create an image of the film that wasn't made."
Panahi is humorous, and makes jokes that this will be "behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films." They move into the living room and Panahi tapes out the imagined movie set on the floor. He had already gone location scouting in Isfahan and found the perfect room, and shows us the picture on his iPhone of the girl he found for the lead role. Panahi says, "Her face showed she had lived a life with a lot of hardship and problems." (Panahi usually works with non-actors.) Panahi is focused and totally in the work-zone, as he describes how he envisions his first shot. He acts out scenes, acts out all the parts.
Mirtahmasb moves around him, sometimes shooting him from overhead, so we see Panahi on the giant Persian carpet, taping out where the stairs would be. This Is Not a Film is elegantly edited. The footage may be rough, but the structure is not. Panahi, at one point, from out of nowhere, becomes overcome with emotion, the first sign of despair we have seen. He says to himself, "If we could tell a film ... then why make a film ..."
They take a break. Panahi talks about the legal case, about his problems with the authorities over the years. To illustrate some of his points, Panahi pops in DVDs of his films, Crimson Gold and then The Circle, and freezes on certain scenes, talking about what happened on that particular day of filming, how the actor brought something to the scene he could never have planned for, how the location aided in getting the feeling of the scene. You get the sense of his work process (already entirely evident in the films themselves, which have a frenetic urban "caught footage" energy reminiscent of the work of Sidney Lumet), and how he allows for accident and surprise.
This Is Not a Film allows for it as well. The fireworks are intrusive, but they are happening in reality, and therefore embraced as part of the atmosphere. A neighbor shows up and wants to drop off what very well may be the most annoying dog on the planet while she runs out on an errand. As Panahi looks for news on the Internet, there are shots of Igi, the lizard, slowly crawling up through a bookcase, insinuating itself between the shelves.
A handsome college student who is helping out with the trash in the building shows up, and Panahi follows him into the elevator. As they ride the elevator, the kid gets off on every floor to pick up the trash. The kid is completely photogenic and appealing. You can sense Panahi's directorial interest in him. Just keep this kid talking. They step outside into the mayhem of the Nowruz celebration, with a giant bonfire raging beyond the gates of the apartment complex. The college kid says to Panahi, in a tone of gentle concern, "Don't come outside, Mr. Panahi. They will see your camera."
The line is tragic, because it is said so casually.
In early September came the news that co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb had been banned from traveling to Toronto for the screening of This Is Not a Film. On September 17, 2011, Mirtahmasb was arrested in Iran along with five other filmmakers. He is said to be detained in Evin Prison. The crackdowns continue.
This Is Not a Film, then, is one of the most powerful political films ever made, and one of the most powerful cries against inhumanity since Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis" in 1897. The mere fact of the film's existence is a miracle, and its cumulative effect is overwhelming. It is a shout of anger and despair at censorship and oppression. It is a glimpse into the artistic process, of an artist doing what he should be doing, which is planning his next project, a project that will never be made now.
This Is Not a Film is a cry of pain for the silencing of Jafar Panahi, for him and us.
Screening some of the most highly anticipated films of the season, along with special programs and series focusing on directors and avant-garde work, the 49th New York Film Festival starts on September 30 and runs to October 16. Take a look at the schedule and purchase tickets here.