If we could tell a film: This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film (In film nist) (2011)

Under house arrest, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi creates a powerful humanist manifesto against censorship and lack of freedom of speech in his country

This Is Not a Film


Di­rect­ed by Ja­far Panahi and Mo­jta­ba Mir­tah­masb.

In 2010, Iran­ian film­mak­er Ja­far Panahi was ar­rest­ed by the gov­ern­ment and tak­en by fif­teen plain clothes of­fi­cers from his home along with his wife, daugh­ter and fif­teen guests — in­clud­ing promi­nent film­mak­er Mo­ham­mad Ra­soulof — to Evin Prison in north­west­ern Tehran, a place nick­named “Evin Uni­ver­si­ty” for hous­ing a great num­ber of in­tel­lec­tu­als and po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Panahi has al­ways been an out­spo­ken sup­port­er of the op­po­si­tion and be­cause of that was con­vict­ed for “as­sem­bly and col­lud­ing with the in­ten­tion to com­mit crimes against the country’s na­tion­al se­cu­ri­ty and pro­pa­gan­da against the Is­lam­ic Re­pub­lic.” The Is­lam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Court then sen­tenced Panahi to six years of im­pris­on­ment with a 20-year ban on mak­ing films, writ­ing screen­plays, leav­ing the coun­try and giv­ing in­ter­views.

Un­der house ar­rest while await­ing the re­sult of his ap­peal, Panahi de­cides to doc­u­ment his life and be­gins to film him­self in his apart­ment. We see him hav­ing break­fast in front of his cam­corder and lat­er talk­ing on the phone with his lawyer, who ac­knowl­edges that the court rul­ings are 100% po­lit­i­cal and not at all le­gal, and that it could be pos­si­ble to lift the ban and re­duce his sen­tence, even if im­pris­on­ment is a cer­tain­ty. Panahi calls his friend and fel­low film­mak­er Mo­jta­ba Mir­tah­masb and asks him to come and help him doc­u­ment the film he was plan­ning to make be­fore his ar­rest. He tells Mir­tah­masb to make sure that no one knows he is com­ing, for fear of what might hap­pen. There is a whole se­cre­tive mood since they know what they are do­ing is dan­ger­ous and there could be ter­ri­ble con­se­quences if they got caught.

Once Mir­tah­masb ar­rives there, Panahi is feel­ing in­spired by his own films to make a “be­hind the scenes of Iran­ian film­mak­ers not mak­ing films,” as Mir­tah­masb puts it. It is great to see the two di­rec­tors de­cid­ing how to pro­ceed, first with re­spect to tech­ni­cal mat­ters (such as any need for ad­di­tion­al light or the lev­el of over­ex­po­sure) and then how to elab­o­rate the ge­o­graph­ic con­di­tions in­side the apart­ment so that Panahi can nar­rate the screen­play that he wrote but was re­fused (like oth­er pre­vi­ous ones) by the Min­istry of Cul­ture and Is­lam­ic Guid­ance. Panahi recre­ates the set in his liv­ing room and tells the cam­era in de­tails how he planned to make a film that nev­er was and prob­a­bly nev­er will be — which should be fas­ci­nat­ing to any­one who loves Cin­e­ma and is in­ter­est­ed in hav­ing a peek into an artist’s cre­ative process.

If there is some­thing that Cin­e­ma has proven many times, it is that it can be a door to in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties, and even though we are not watch­ing the ac­tu­al film that Panahi had in mind when he wrote his screen­play, This Is Not a Film ends up of­fer­ing a lot more by show­ing us the mak­ing of an un­made film and its im­pli­ca­tions — es­pe­cial­ly con­cern­ing the near­ly nonex­is­tent free­dom of speech that an artist is al­lowed to have in a coun­try dom­i­nat­ed by re­li­gious val­ues. This Is Not a Film is def­i­nite­ly a film, and it is re­veal­ing to see Panahi ques­tion him­self and what they are do­ing by ad­mit­ting that “if we could tell a film, then why make a film?” Mo­ments like this el­e­vate the project to some­thing also hu­man, while at the same time call­ing into ques­tion what makes a true nar­ra­tive (“I feel what we are do­ing here is also a lie,” he says).

At some point, it is beau­ti­ful to no­tice that Mirtahmasb’s pres­ence be­comes al­most in­vis­i­ble be­hind the cam­era, as Panahi is al­lowed to talk freely about his ideas and even how he doesn’t want to put his col­leagues in trou­ble af­ter 12 promi­nent film­mak­ers made an ap­peal for his re­lease. In oth­er mo­ments, we see Panahi “alone” in the com­pa­ny of his lizard, the cam­era show­ing his dai­ly life in­side his apart­ment as he is for­bid­den to leave. It can be un­nerv­ing to think that his apart­ment has be­come a prison and that he can­not ex­press his own art any­more for as long as he is in there, and this feel is in­ten­si­fied by the scary sounds of po­lice sirens and what seems to be gun­shots mixed with the ex­plo­sions of fire­works out­side (mark­ing the Iran­ian fes­ti­val Cha­har­shanbe Suri that pre­cedes the Per­sian new year, Nou­ruz).

But This Is Not a Film (whose ti­tle is a ref­er­ence to René Magritte’s The Treach­ery of Im­ages) reach­es the point of near per­fec­tion when Panahi leaves his apart­ment and has an el­e­va­tor trip with a guy (an Arts re­search stu­dent) who col­lects the garbage in the build­ing. First shoot­ing with an iPhone, Panahi then switch­es to his cam­corder and the two have a ca­su­al talk about the guy’s life and plans for his fu­ture as the el­e­va­tor goes down from floor to floor and the guy col­lects the trash from each apart­ment. It is a tru­ly de­light­ful mo­ment show­ing com­mon peo­ple that brings to mind the best films of Brazil­ian film­mak­er Ed­uar­do Coutin­ho in its hu­man sim­plic­i­ty and hu­mor — and I also love an­oth­er light mo­ment when Mir­tah­masb makes an im­pro­vised tri­pod for the cam­corder us­ing a lighter and a pack of cig­a­rettes.

Some­times the best films are born when we least ex­pect them, and This Is Not a Film (which was smug­gled from Iran to the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in a flash dri­ve hid­den in­side a birth­day cake) is a fan­tas­tic ex­am­ple of that. Ded­i­cat­ed to Iran­ian film­mak­ers and mak­ing a pow­er­ful state­ment even in its fi­nal cred­its, this is a film that shows how im­por­tant it is to con­tin­ue fight­ing. Even if you can’t film, use your phone. But si­lence should nev­er be an op­tion.

De­cem­ber 6, 2016


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