Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jafar Panahi
This Is Not A Film is a faux day-in-the-life documentary from Iranian director Jafar Panahi, and was created as a response to the 20-year ban imposed on him by the fundamentalist regime that rules Iran. Panahi is a serious filmmaker whose films have been branded seditious by the regime because they dare to be critical of the government’s repressive policies and, in particular, its subjugation of women. Films like The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006) were shot guerilla style in Tehran, and have highlighted the plight of women in Iran, who are treated as second class citizens. As a consequence Panahi has been banned from writing, directing or shooting a film for 20 years, he has been banned from leaving Iran, and has been sentenced to six years imprisonment. Panahi has appealed the severity of the sentence, and has been placed under house arrest while awaiting the outcome of that appeal, which could be a very long process.
While sitting around his surprisingly spacious and modern Tehran apartment Panahi grows bored with the daily grind of life inside and itches to do something more inspiring and creative. With the help of a close friend and fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who has since also been subsequently arrested) Panahi decides to tell the story of the film he was planning to make. He reads from the script while marking out scenes on the living room carpet, which Mirtahmasb films. Panahi also views some his previous films on DVD and talks about some of the crucial decisions and scenes.
What emerges throughout this 75-minute film is a candid portrait of an artist railing against authority in subtle fashion. We clearly sense the frustration and ennui of a passionate and talented artist who is not permitted to practice his craft. And we are informed by his lawyer that the decision to ban him is not a judicial one, but based on political considerations. Panahi speculates on the crisis facing Iran’s film industry and filmmakers given the current government’s stance. Significantly, the names of all those colleagues Panahi wishes to thank for their support have been redacted from the end credits, to protect them from repercussions.
Most of the film’s shoot takes place over the course of one day in March of 2011. We get Panahi talking to one of his lawyers discussing his case, although much of the conversation is couched in vague terms for fear that someone may be listening in. There is some unexpected humour derived from the presence of a pet iguana that crawls over the furniture. Outside it is Fireworks Wednesday, and fireworks crackle and burst like gunfire, a subtle reminder of the potential dangers that lurk just around the corner in Iran. On the tv news a reporter announces that the President of Iran has declared that Fireworks Wednesday is illegal and has no religious basis.
In careful fashion, this “non-film” itself is highly critical of the Iranian government and its stifling of the voices of its once great and flourishing film industry. However, the last few minutes are largely irrelevant and seem like an indulgence on Panahi’s part. He spends the time filming and talking to a young student who does part time work collecting trash in the apartment block. As they ride the lift down to the ground floor Panahi gently probes the young man about his aspirations.
The film itself was smuggled out of Iran in a USB stick hidden inside a birthday cake. It eventually made its way to Cannes, where it was screened to great acclaim. But one wonders what impact this will have on Panahi’s case in the future. This Is Not A Film is a slight effort from Panahi, shot under difficult circumstances, but it is an important one as it focuses attention on the shameful treatment of filmmakers by a backward and oppressive regime. Panahi’s situation is also reminiscent of those European filmmakers who operated under strict Communist regimes in the 40s and 50s, who had to couch their implicit criticisms in clever and subtle ways that would evade the censors.
This is not a film though, but rather a potent and telling commentary upon contemporary Iranian politics and morality, and a subtle act of defiance.