Selected Film Reviews

by Mara Math


directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

This is Not a Film

It’s not a traditional narrative or a typical documentary, but it is for damn sure a film after all, a cry from the heart of a filmmaker’s filmmaker.

A middle-aged man quietly eats breakfast in a spacious apartment and talks on the phone; as he begins making reference to a prison sentence and a twenty-year ban, and cautions, “Don’t say on the phone,” viewers may wonder if we’re back in Tony Soprano territory. Is this apparently calm gentleman, who nevertheless gives off a hint of simmering energy, a contract killer? A thug?

Indeed, it emerges that this man filming his daily life is a criminal, by his government’s reckoning: Convicted of criticizing said government during the Green Revolution, and currently under house arrest as he awaits sentencing, he has been targeted for the crime of making art in Iran. We are breakfasting with Jafar Panahi, director of The Circle and Crimson Gold, two of the strongest entries in new Iranian cinema, also notable, along with his Offside, for deeply empathetic understanding of the plight of women in Iran. Banned from making movies for the aforementioned twenty years, Panahi is indeed simmering internally, not with rage but with an urge toward artistry that he must stifle.

In one of This Is Not a Film’s typically subtle, telling moments, Panahi doesn’t pick up the phone as his wife’s message scrolls out into the air, in fact strolls into the bathroom, but as soon as his teenage son’s voice is heard to utter the word “camera,” Panahi can’t stop himself: he rushes out with his pants undone and dives for the phone.

When Panahi proposes that he read the script he is not allowed to film, it looks like we might be presented with a more modest version of The Cradle Will Rock, the famous banned performance done from the stalls in 1937, fictionalized and immortalized in Tim Robbin’s film of the same title, but nothing so predictable occurs. We get a clearer picture of Panahi’s frustration—and talent—than of the story he is reading and describing, the tale of a young girl imprisoned by her father to keep her from making use of her acceptance into university.

Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi’s documentarian friend who comes in to film what he jokingly calls Behind the Scenes: Iranian Directors Not Making Films, appears to perhaps have done at least a little judicious shaping. Just as Panahi’s voice going on and on without taking the slightest breath verges on becoming tiresome, he is overcome with more emotion than anything he has relayed in recounting the story. “If we could tell a film,” he asks, in the film’s most central line, “why make a film?”

You can’t. Even as he attempts an oral recitation, Panahi can’t stop bringing in visual elements, literally setting the scene, taping off a section of carpet to represent a smaller, poorer room, trying to describe angles and light and all the elements he would incorporate as a director. What has been damned up is overflowing; when he gives up on “telling” his film, within moments he is filming and journalistically interrogating the young man who collects the trash.

And through it all, the day is backgrounded by gunshots ringing out in the not-too-far distance, as an unseen demonstration takes place (and is presumably brutally quelled).

The last vibrant shot, of fire in the streets, could equally well be a window into Panahi’s heart, aflame with the desire, the need, to make films.

[Panahi is now serving six years in prison.]

This is Not a Film opens Friday, April 6th and runs through April 12th at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post St., San Francisco. For more information:

Posted: 03/31/2012