This Is Not A Film
An Experiment by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
When the 2009 protests across Tehran failed to overthrow the political dictatorship that has dominated Iran for over 40 years, many were fearful of the consequences that would reverberate for those who fought, especially those in the arts. Despite what many general Americans might think, Iran’s filmmaking has flourished for decades. When taking a class with Richard Pena, he told an anecdotal story that when Abbas Kiarostami would bring scripts to the governmental approval board, they tried to make stylistic suggestions more than changes for content.
But not everyone has felt as open in today’s Iran since the protests. Abbas Kiarostami has left his native country to make films outside the state. Mohsen Makhmalbaf abandoned filmmaking to become a full time revolutionary. Asghar Farhadi may have won countless awards for his masterful film A Separation, but the government has used its Oscar win to stir up furthertensions with Israel. And Jafar Panahi, perhaps the most political filmmaker of the country, was banned from being a filmmaker for 20 years.
Panahi, however, has attempted to protest the ban by asking what filmmaking is. Along with a conspirator, the documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, he has made a fascinating experiment in what might be called anti-cinema. Or is it actual cinema? That’s the point of This Is Not A Film, a direct allegory of cinema as political statement. Its mere existence might lead to Panahi’s immediate arrest, and while the fallout of the failed protests remains highly central to the work, the whole thing seems more theoretical in nature. What is film, anyways? Especially when it’s being shot with handheld camera and iPhones.
As the “film” opens, we see Panahi eating breakfast, putting on clothes for the day, and calling a few friends. He is taking a camera around with him, but does he believe it for the purpose of a film? He puts his calls on speakerphone so the camera can pick up the audio, and certainly we must consider this act a directorial choice. Stuck under house arrest, Panahi has no choice but to live—and create—in this absurd way.
Eventually Mirtahmasb comes over takes control of the camera, and the two chat about his arrest. Panahi decides to perform an experiment by explaining the last film he attempted to make. The script was rejected by the Iranian Film Commission, so he decides that he will explain the film instead. Using his living room, he uses tape to show boundaries, explains where the camera will be placed for each shot, and reads some of the dialogue aloud. He even shows us the location he scouted with a video he took on his iPhone. As Panahi lays the pieces together, it allows us as the spectator to play the film in our own heads. It’s a fascinating experience to see Panahi’s directorial process at work, but almost more fascinating is the moment he forces himself to stop, unable to take the pain of not being able to do his life’s work. “Why make a film if you could tell a film?” he mutters to himself.
Shot over the course of a day in March 2011, This Is Not A Film is a brief (75 minutes) work in which every frame is a political statement (the film only made it to the Cannes Film Festival by being smuggled in a USB stick hidden inside a cake). Panahi and Mitrahmasb aren’t exactly sure of what to do, but they keep the cameras rolling because they are compelled to do something to defy this absurd ruling. Sometimes this allows the film to be somewhat tangential in absurd ways, such as Panahi’s interactions with his pet iguana Igi (an easy candidate for animal of the year) or his discussions of his own choices as a filmmaker as he shows clips from his older films (an astute observer behind me mentioned that the Ryan Reynolds-trapped-in-a-coffin film Buried appeared on his DVD shelf, which may or may not be coincidence).
We often talk about how some of the greatest films of all time have come out of great limitations from circumstances beyond the director’s control. Jaws doesn’t become a classic without Spielberg having to use the camera instead of a mechanical shark. A number of classic Hollywood films bend the code by suggesting coital adultery through fade outs and frizzled hair. And Jørgen Leth learned how limitations can actually free you by participating in Lars Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions.This Is Not a Film is perhaps more limited than all of these, precisely because the director is never allowed to direct (Panahi often calls cut, but Mitrahmasb refuses as a running joke). The result is something so minor in what we see on screen, but almost intangible in its accomplishments. This is an absurdist work where each frame on screen, through its mere existence, is a direct political statement against a regime, and one that questions what we define as film.