This Is Not A Review

31 03 2012
This Is Not A Film, Jafar Panahi

'This Is Not A Film'

Necessity is the mother of invention: nowhere, in the world of cinema, has this been demonstrated more strikingly and more often than in Iran. Hemmed in by political censorship on one side and budgetary constraints on the other, Iranian film-makers (or at least those not working in purely commercial cinema) have long escaped into myth, allegory and street-level neorealism in their work.

One such film-maker is Jafar Panahi whose films have often used small-scale stories set on the fringes of society to examine wider social issues in microcosm. The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006), for example, both dealt with the position of women in Iranian society, the first through a series of stories about newborn girls and female ex-prisoners, the second by following a group of teenage girls trying to sneak into a men-only football game. Similarly, The White Balloon (1995) was a deceptively simple children’s film that managed to contain a whole world in one small girl’s quest to buy a goldfish from her local market.

Panahi’s room for manoeuvre has, sadly, been limited still further over the past 3 years. Arrested for his links with the ‘Green’ protest movement in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the director spent time in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail before being released and put under house arrest. In an additional cruel twist, the authorities have banned him both from leaving the country and from making films for the next 20 years.

This Is Not A Film, made under these conditions and smuggled out of Iran hidden inside a cake, is Panahi’s response to this enforced inactivity. As such it’s both a brave, defiant film and potentially a very dangerous one.

The action takes place over the course of the Persian New Year in March 2011, as Panahi waits at home to hear the result of his appeal against a six-year jail sentence. His wife and family have gone away to visit relatives, so he invites documentary film-maker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb around, and together the two of them explore the limits of the ban imposed on the director.

Panahi is forbidden from script-writing or directing cinema, so instead he sets out to describe and act out scenes from the film that he was planning to make before being arrested. Occasionally he lapses back into directorial mode, telling Mirtamasb to ‘cut’, only to be playfully told off by the cameraman for breaching the rules.

When the limitations of this approach become clear, Panahi shows us scenes from his previous work on DVD, explaining how certain moments and experiences will influence the feature that he’s describing to us now. His frustration at having no prospect of realising his vision any time soon is palpable, as is the absurdity of a film-making ban in the era of You Tube and mobile phone cameras, where anyone with a phone is, in effect, a director. Occasionally, bored, Panahi wanders out onto his balcony and turns his iPhone camera onto the street below, or onto his collaborator, filming himself being filmed. A surreal note is added by the presence of the family’s pet iguana which lopes around the flat, and over the housebound director, like something from Buñuel.

Jafar Panahi, This Is Not a Film, Iguana
One man and his iguana

Certain scenes, notably an ‘impromptu’ discussion with a student-turned-rubbish-collector, have the feeling of having been planned or discussed beforehand, so that we’re never quite sure how much of what we’re seeing is structured semi-fiction and how much is pure off-the-cuff documentary. This fits the film – or should I say ‘non-film’? – perfectly, testing, as it does, the limits of what constitutes cinema, authorship and censorship.

As I write, the director is serving his six-year sentence, upheld by the court of appeal despite protests from international film organisations and film-makers. A powerful voice in the world of cinema has been silenced for now, and dozens of others have been intimidated and harassed by the verdict. This Is Not A Film stands as an act of almost foolish bravery in the face of a stupid and brutal system of censorship and political oppression.

So how many stars do I give this film? Remember: this is not a review.  

 

This Is Not A Film is out in UK cinemas now

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