It was one of Orson Wells’ most iconic creations, Harry Lime, who made the point that culture thrives on conflict and antagonism. And if you view art to be a refined expression of culture, then you’d be hard pushed to find a better example of Lime’s words than the achievement of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Charged on 1 March 2010 for disseminating ‘propaganda against the Islamic Republic’ (by supporting those who were protesting the re-election of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), the authorities marked Panahi out as a dangerous freethinker. He was subsequently placed under house arrest and banned from writing scripts or making films for the next twenty years. And so this highly decorated filmmaker was cast into purgatory, the remainder of his career consigned to drown in the amniotic fluid of his unbirthable movies. But Panahi refused to accept the punishment. He turned the camera on himself, made himself the subject of a ‘non-cinematic’ event, and in doing so has managed to capture – with incredible dignity and aplomb – the agony of an artist who cannot tell his stories.

It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, really. Somehow art manages to find a way to burrow out of even the heaviest slab of censorship, and, better still, assume an edge that is sharper and more piercing as a result of these constraints. Indeed, the Iranian film industry bears testament to this phenomenon. The numbers alone tell a story: in 2012, more than 150 films were made in Iran, many of which have garnered worldwide recognition. It appears that Iran’s draconian laws are doing little to dampen the creative spirit – in fact censorship is clearly seen as a challenge by its film industry and is having the opposite effect. As hardliners nibble away at human rights while censors continue to turn the screw on what’s permissible, the arthouse faction has become more introspective, subtle and nuanced in the way it is exploring the effects of suppression on the human psyche. This has seen a rise in character-centred narratives shot in cramped settings which contrasts with the more expansive Iranian films of the 1990s.

Film reviewed:

This Is Not a Film directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, written by Jafar Panahi, produced by Jafar Panahi and distributed by Kanibal Film Distribution (France). In Persian, 2011.

In the case of This Is Not a Film, however, there wasn’t any kind of plea-bargaining with the authorities. The film was made and then reportedly smuggled out of Iran in a USB stick, which was hidden inside a cake as it crossed the border and arrived at the Cannes Film Festival to take its place amongst grand cinematic pieces such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. This makes the film something of a celebration, a victory for freedom against the odds, not to mention a testament to Panahi’s creative genius thriving despite the woefully limited means of production at his disposal. After finding out that their film had reached Cannes, one can only imagine the tears of joy Panahi and co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, must have shed.

Shot partly on a digital camcorder and partly on an iPhone, we are taken through a day in the life of Panahi, and are made voyeurs in what appears to be an artless video diary and, at best, a documentary running at a little over 75 minutes. Idle and uptight, Panahi is living out his days in the prosaic comforts of his high-rise apartment, which somehow makes his situation feel more desperate. A director whose debut feature, The White Balloon (1995), picked up a prize at Cannes and whose subsequent films have impressed audiences the world over, he finds himself puttering alone in the house, seemingly marooned, the middle years of his life now bleeding away in a state of incarceration. It is the eve of the Persian New Year, and his wife and daughter have gone to visit family, leaving him in the company of their pet iguana Igi, who is given licence to roam the apartment and whose interactions with Panahi offer moments of light relief.

From the outset the film has a deliberately downplayed demeanour. It is as if Panahi is mindful not to make his statement any more than what is it and risk presenting himself as some kind of martyr and turn his project into a polemic or protest film. No, that would run counter to an oeuvre that has forgone delivering big blows to empire in favour of creating characters whose tacit rebellions tell a more nuanced story. Yet, even with such a straightforward and seemingly uninspiring set up (a man holed up in his house), what follows is a subtle interplay between Panahi’s ruminations on the processes of his own filmmaking, the artless businesses of his daily life, the sense of danger attached to the risk he is taking by breaking – if not severely bending ­– the terms of his ban, the sum of which is bound together in a subtle yet wonderfully cinematic meta-narrative that manages to blur the line between fiction and reality. In the wake of the final act, one wonders whether we spent the last hour and quarter in the company of a despairing man or in fact caught in the spell of a consummate storyteller. Despite the seemingly unstructured nature of the film it is interesting to note that the film was shot in four sessions over a ten-day period; some parts were written, some sketched out, and others came about through happenstance. Indeed the amusing interludes with the pet animals are just one of many clues that suggest reference to certain narrative conventions. As such the film is completely conscious of what it is and what it claims to be, and it is anything but an artless home movie or video essay.

The film opens with a still shot of Panahi alone, sitting at his breakfast table. He is putting jam and spread on his bread, and then tinkers with his mobile phone whilst eating. He has an idea to lift his spirits: unable to make his last film project, he will talk about it instead. He calls his friend Mirtahmasb, a documentary maker, and asks him to come round to record his telling of the story. What is made clear from the start is that in order to make this ‘documentary’ and be seen to be obeying the terms of his ban at least, Panahi must relinquish his role as director and stay in front of the camera, giving Mirtahmasb complete creative control. It is a situation that is footnoted later on in a poignant moment when Panahi says ‘cut’ which Mirtahmasb must ignore, unable as he is to take directions from the banned Panahi. This precaution is purely semantic, of course, and merely thrusts a spotlight on the severity of his plight.

After taking a shower we see Panahi talking to his lawyer on speakerphone for the latest update on his court appeal against his sentencing. The news isn’t promising (while there is a chance the length of the ban might be reduced, he will definitely have to serve the prison sentence): ‘So from what you’re saying I should pack my bag and put it by the front door,’ he says ruefully. Although underpinned by a stoic acceptance, Panahi’s dejection is palpable.

Tense and alone, Panahi cuts a tormented figure lounging around his apartment, not so much like the auteur figure he is, but a creature that has had its wings clipped and is kept in a gilded cage. All the while, we hear what sounds like gunfire going off outside in sporadic bursts, but what turns out to be traditional New Year fireworks, albeit defying government prohibition (as suggested by a news report Panahi watches on TV). Nevertheless, these sounds exacerbate Panahi’s sense of isolation. One suspects they aren’t coincidental but a planned addition to the mise-en-scene that show the extent to which the authority is out of touch with the people. Indeed, standing on his balcony, Panahi films the celebrations with his iPhone, and in doing so shows that the authorities cannot stop acts of expression, be they his own or the country’s at large.

While he is clearly not wanting for food, Panahi is starving creatively and his daily frustrations have mounted so high that he appears on the brink of an onscreen meltdown. We see Panahi hunched over, clutching his arms in mental agony; eventually he dispenses with the film’s fourth wall convention and stares directly into the camera: ‘I think I should remove this cast and throw it away.’ It is a wonderful moment that borrows the modus operandi of Brechtian theatre. By addressing the camera so calmly, Panahi shakes the viewer from passively accepting what is unfolding on screen. He wants his audience to judge the film with a critical mind. In a way, unable to make the films he wants, he uses the opportunity to direct the viewer instead, opening their eyes to the power of art.

It is at this juncture that we arrive at the film’s intellectual soul. Panahi discusses the art of filmmaking while showing the viewer clips from his previous movies. His eyes and soul come alive – a god waking from a giant slumber. It is an exhilarating evocation of how his films are painstakingly made, how thought is given to the smallest detail, and how the strength of artistic expression lies in nuance. He begins the seminar by alluding to one of his films, The Circle, and discusses the organic nature of an amateur actor’s performance – the surprising improvisations that he could never have thought of and how they enhanced the scene’s dramatic effect. Secondly, in another one of his films, The Mirror, he shows us a child actor breaking character and throwing a tantrum and explains how her emotional outburst becomes more interesting than the scene itself. And, thirdly, he explains the power of mise-en-scene, while playing a series of shots from a film showing a woman running through a corridor. This master class offers a clue that what we’re watching is far more than a day-in-the-life documentary. The passage serves as a kind of hall of mirrors in which each example would later be reflected in the seemingly real world of the video diary. It is almost the equivalent of a mastermind killer leaving clues for the chasing detective, so they could marvel at the man’s ingenuity. What’s more, the signposting of these elements attests to the filmmaker’s artistry in defying the laws of his ban while pouring more irony over the film’s title. In laymen’s terms, it is nothing short of sticking two fingers up at the authorities.

Once Mirtahmasb arrives, he handles the camera and sound while Panahi sits astride a chair holding the screenplay of the film that never got made. He explains that by telling the story, as opposed to filming it, he will not be violating the court’s order. Soon he gets up and begins staging the setting of his film (which also happens to be a house where his protagonist is imprisoned, although these parallels are left unspoken). In the living room, he uses tape to mark out the space representing the house, indicating the position of props and actors, the length of the shots, and he even reads out parts of the dialogue. Like a sudden burst of Technicolor, Panahi’s passion fills the screen; he is on creative overdrive trying to channel the ideas that have been turning circles in his imagination for a long time; in this brisk sequence one sees how every atom of his being is perfectly honed to the task of telling a story. However, amidst this rush of childish abandon, in a heartbreaking moment, he suddenly pauses and, drained of all enthusiasm, addresses the camera: ‘If we could tell a film, then why make a film?’ It is here that we realise how much the man is suffering. One suspects that here is a man who is willing to die for his art.

That sacrificial act arguably comes in the final act of the film. Just as Mirtahmasb is about to leave for the night, having set up the camera so it can continue filming Panahi, a young man arrives at the door. He is a friendly college student who is collecting the apartment’s rubbish and is filling in for regular bin man. Charmed by the young man and sensing that the camera will warm to him, Panahi grabs the camera and begins following him down the lift. For all his charm, the man is evasive about who he is and what he is studying. It is at this moment that one wonders whether the young man is the bait that will lure Panahi outside with camera in hand, and dispatch him red-handed into waiting cuffs of the authorities. It is a truly Kafkaesque finale that forces us to reflect on everything we have seen so far, more so because it echoes the storyline of the film that was never made in which the imprisoned girl falls for a young man who turns out to be a snitch for the secret police.

This Is Not a Film is a wonderful achievement. While it may have a quiet voice, which will barely register with the mainstream sensibility so accustomed to explosions and excess, it delivers an epic message about the power and intelligence of art. Panahi’s life is not simply documented in the film – it is pulled apart, examined, reconstituted and dramatised. In Panahi’s hand (speaking metaphorically of course), the camera is a storytelling device masquerading as a transparent lens. What we are presented with isn’t a video essay, but a piece of cinema that is very much comparable to his other films such as Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006) in which his protagonists suffer from daily humiliations that they have to find ways to deal with. So while technically this is a film with all meat stripped off the bone, it is this shortcoming that gives the film its unique strength. Indeed, in many respects This is Not a Film is a masterpiece with a sleight of hand that the great Orson Wells would have been proud of.

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