What do you do when you aren’t allowed to do what you love?
Dir. Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011, 75 min, Viewed in the Theater
The title of This is Not a Film is technically a lie, though it isn’t a rip-off on the level of The Neverending Story. But the doc doesn’t follow any rules of conventional narrative, nor does it really aim to “satisfy” the viewer. It would almost be impossible for it to do so, anyway. The content of this movie is an excerpt, a quick glimpse at one man’s fallen existence, incomplete as a story but complete as a look at what his world is like. It’s a found footage film, except for that the footage is actually real.
Jafar Panahi is a revered Iranian filmmaker whose brilliant slice-of-life works have often been banned in his own country, since the slices of most people’s lives there kind of suck, what with the dictatorship they live under. He’s been arrested several times over the course of his career, but his most recent project really did it in for him. He’s been sentenced to six years in prison, and is banned from directing or writing films, or giving interviews, for twenty years. Panahi’s friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb visited him for a few days in early 2011, while he was under house arrest, and discreetly shot this documentary. The result is engrossing, maddening, and tragic.
Panahi is the artist who, sealed in a cell with no pen or paper, scribbles on the walls with his blood. The government be damned, he is a filmmaker, and if he cannot direct his film, then why can’t he tell it? He begins describing what would have happened in the movie he wrote that earned him this sentence. Eerily, the story somewhat parallels his own, featuring a character locked up by the regressive powers that be. At first, this seems to be what the doc will be about, but Panahi abandons it after a while, realizing that if one could “tell” a film, there would be no need for cinema as an art form.
That’s one of two devastatingly sad moments in the movie. The second comes earlier, when Panahi and Mirtahmasb, sitting at a kitchen counter, talk about Panahi’s situation. After a while, Panahi jokingly tells him to “cut!” and end the scene. Mirtahmasb doesn’t, and Panahi ruefully says that he supposes he’s not really a director anymore. Gut punches like these, combined with long sequences of Panahi stewing in boredom in his apartment. He watches TV, surfs the Internet (which is rather limited, coming through the censorship-choked Iranian servers), and feeds his daughter’s pet iguana. This movie is a prolonged exercise in sympathetic agony.
And yet there are moments of joy, as well. Panahi occasionally pops one of his old films into the DVD player and goes other specific scenes, explaining what went into the various productions. True to his neorealist style, he insists that most inspiration comes from others in filmmaking. He’s been hailed as a genius, but he gives credit to his actors (who have often been non-professional) finding the right motions on their own, or to convenient “found symbolism” in the locations that he’s shot at. Panahi only comes alive when he’s talking about making movies, and in these moments, you see the bound genius thrashing in protest.
The film ends with a setpiece that’s odd and anti-dramatic and completely wonderful. In a fit of daring, Panahi takes Mirtahmasb’s camera for himself and leaves his apartment, tagging along with the trash boy as he makes his rounds through the building. The sequence consists mainly of Panahi standing in an elevator as it makes its way down, asking questions of the young man. Outside, Iranians are celebrating the millennia-old fireworks festival, in defiance of the government, which has cracked down on the tradition for “not being Muslim.” This is the closest thing we get to a triumph out of this movie – a small gesture, a discreetly raised middle finger to the oppressors. It’s not much. But it feels like a victory.
Of course This is Not a Film is a film. Of course of course, considering the reference that the title makes, you could also look at it as a film of a film. Or you could see it as an ironic gesture to the prohibition placed on Panahi by the Iranian government. A disquieting mood piece, a powerful cry against censorship, and a terrific character study, it’s truly one of the best documentaries released last year. If nothing else, you have to respect the guts of people who had to smuggle their movie out of a country on a thumb drive hidden in a birthday cake.