Posts tagged ‘jafar panahi’

Round & Round: This Is Not A Film film review

Jafar Panahi, house arrest, This Is Not A Film, 2012

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.

Jafar Pahahi, blocking, This Is Not A Film, 2012

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.

Jafar Panahi, frustrated, This Is Not A Film, 2012

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

April 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm Leave a comment

Standing In The Way Of Control: Jafar Panahi, David Wojnarowicz, and Cultural Strategy

Jafar Panahi, 2010

The Berlinale opened this week and the film festival posted on the front page of its website a powerful and poignant letter from jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, whom the Iranian government recently sentenced to six years in prison and banned for twenty years from making films, for supposedly plotting against the regime. In his letter Panahi states, “The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for twenty years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in twenty years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that an artist as talented as Panahi and as outspoken in his support of human rights might be muzzled for two decades. I’ve only seen his three most recent films but each of them are both innovative and imaginatively made movies as well as clear, uncompromising critiques of social inequities in Iran and beyond. The Circle (2003) savagely exposes the gender inequities in the lives of Iranian women. Crimson Gold (2003), written by fellow Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, concerns an everyday pizza delivery man whose daily humiliations by the ruling class eventually push him over the edge. Offside (2006) also takes on gender roles in modern-day Iran, framing its story against the runup to the World Cup.

The international film community, as evidenced by the Berlinale’s decision to leave a symbolically empty chair for Panahi on its jury panel, has been vocal in its opposition to his sentence, but it remains to be seen if the Iranian government will bow to public pressure to release Panahi or reduce his sentence.

Panahi has been eloquent in his own defense, noting in an interview in August, ““When a filmmaker does not make films it is as if he is jailed. Even when he is freed from the small jail, he finds himself wandering in a larger jail. The main question is: why should it be a crime to make a movie? A finished film, well, it can get banned but not the director.”

David Wojnarowicz, still from "A Fire In My Belly," 1987

Though Panahi’s sentence may seem shockingly excessive, we here in the U.S. shouldn’t forget that culture wars are still being fought in this country as well. In October 2010, conservative Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio (now Speaker of the House) and Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) targeted the inclusion of the late artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s short experimental film A Fire in My Belly in the show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Citing a brief passage from the film in which ants are seen crawling over a wooden crucifix, Boehner called the exhibit “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Skittish Smithsonian curators quickly pulled the film from the show, to the outrage of much of the art world (the Warhol Foundation threatened to withdraw its funding from the museum). As with early 1990s attacks on NEA-funded artists by Sen. Jesse Helms, another far-right stalwart, the current assault attempts to silence what the right considers a dangerously subversive perspective, that of a gay man who dared to include religious iconography in his work. It’s one more volley in the ongoing attempt by the right to control the cultural discourse of the U.S.

Perhaps more so that the left, the right wing keenly understands the ability of art and culture to sway public opinion. As Jeff Chang and Brian Komar so astutely note in Vision: How We Can Beat Conservatives With Progressive Culture, their excellent essay on alternet.org about what they term “cultural strategy,”  “When artists tell new stories, they can shift the culture and make new politics possible.” There’s a reason why conservatives are once again agitating to de-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it’s not because they don’t like the tote bag they got with their membership pledge. It’s because the right understands that by controlling arts, culture and media outlets, and by extension controlling the master narrative, it can control the social and political landscape as well. As Mao Zedong famously stated, “[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapon for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.” (Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 1942) Change “revolutionary” to “conservative” and “enemy” to “Democrats” and this quote could be straight from the latest installment of Fox News.

Poster, Cultural Revolution, ca. 1971

Mao had a good reason to fear the millions of artists and intellectuals that he exiled to hard labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He understood the power of art to shape popular thought and sway political opinion, as does the Republican brain trust that has been fighting for control of the arts and culture of this country for decades, and as does the ruling party in Iran that has chosen to silence Jafar Panahi.

So while we wring our hands over the fate of Panahi, we should keep in mind that we’ve immersed in a culture war here in our own backyard as well. Rush, Sean, and Bill aren’t just harmless kooks mouthing off on cable tv, but are significant bully pulpits of the right-wing thought-control machine. It’s no accident that in the dire hours of the Egyptian revolution this past month, then-President Mubarak immediately moved to shut down Internet access, repress independent media outlets, and harass journalists. The power to define and shape the cultural narrative, whether through art, media, or information exchange, is the new high ground in the battle for ideological and political power.

UPDATE: Jafar Panahi has just been awarded the Carrosse d’Or (Golden Coach) at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which is awarded for “innovative qualities, courage and independent-mindedness.” Cannes will screen Offside on May 12 and will keep an symbolically empty chair in the theater for Panahi.

February 13, 2011 at 7:04 am 2 comments


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