Round & Round: This Is Not A Film film review
Iranian director Jafar Pahahi has been under house arrest for more than a year now awaiting the outcome of latest appeal of his 2010 conviction of conspiring to overthrow Iran’s Islamic Republic. His latest effort, This Is Not A Film is a documentary of what he describes as “two idle filmmakers,” Panahi and fellow Iranian director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, attempting to make sense out of a nonsensical situation. Filmed mostly inside Panahi’s Tehran apartment over the course of a day and evening, the movie is an interesting metaphor for the likely state of Panahi’s frustrated creative mind right now.
The movie follows Panahi as he eat breakfast and kibitzes with his lawyer on the phone about the possible results of his legal appeal. It then continues with a visit from Mirtahmasb who films Panahi as he describes the scenario for his most recently script, lately rejected by the Iranian censorship board. Panahi and Mirtahmasb begin to block out the film on Panahi’s living room rug, but the process abruptly ends and the documentary goes on several tangents. Somehow Panahi ends up filming Mirtahmasb on his cell phone camera while Mirtahmasb is filming him, in circumspect defiance of the regime’s ban on Panahi making films. The film ends with Panahi interviewing an art student/garbage collector/deliveryman on his trash-collecting rounds as they discuss the difficulties of creating work under the current regime’s oppressive eye.
Attesting to Panahi’s status as one of Iran’s leading directors, we see him in his comfortable flat casually name-checking various members of the Iranian filmmaking pantheon such as Rakhshān (Bani-E’temād) and Khambozia (Partovi). Yet he also seems quite at ease chatting with the art student/garbageman and doesn’t seem to mind riding in an elevator with a smelly trashcan.
This Is Not A Film has the same watchful intelligence as Panahi’s narrative films (The Circle; Offside; Crimson Gold), and as with those films, this one possesses a sharp critique of the Iranian power structure. Several times Panahi mentions his unwillingness to solicit public support from his fellow Iranian filmmakers due to the risks from the government their aid may cause them and Mirtahmasb at one point asks Panahi to take a picture of him as evidence in case the government retaliates against him for helping out Panahi. Throughout the documentary an uneasy undercurrent of repression flavors the goings-on, adding a furtive guardedness to the proceedings.
Panahi maintains a keen eye for metaphor–he paces fitfully in his apartment, only able to connect to the outside world through remote devices like the cell phone or through TV news, or at a distance, by watching the city’s daily life at a remove on his balcony. The storyline of Panahi’s rejected script involves a young woman attempting to escape the house that her family has locked her in, which of course echoes Panahi’s own real-life house arrest. Tellingly, the recounting of this story and others in the documentary are interrupted and unfinished, adding to the film’s mood of incompleteness and frustration.
Panahi also makes good use of the spectacle of Fireworks Wednesday, the boisterous celebration of Persian New Year. The film ends with Panahi viewing from afar a bonfire just outside the gates of his apartment building as his visitor warns him not to be seen holding a camera or “they will see you.” As he lingers in his doorway he clearly longs to join the celebration, yet his wariness that “they” will censure him constrains him.
This small moment is an excellent representation of the invisible restrictions on Panahi’s freedom and the way in which the Iranian regime holds him captive, as well as the means by which he attempts to subvert that captivity. The doublespeak of This Is Not A Film’s title echoes that subversion, as Panahi tries to find a workaround to his confinement without pushing the regime too far. It’s a delicate, frustrating balance and one Panahi captures pretty effectively in this film. His creative life hangs in the balance and, like the interrupted stories throughout, if the Iranian government prevails, it may never reach its full completeness.
This Is Not a Film (In film nist, Iran 2011), dir. Jafar Panahi
opens April 6
SF Film Society Cinema
1746 Post Street
San Francisco CA
go here for tickets and information