Monday, October 10, 2011

NYFF ’11: This is Not a Film

Jafar Panahi will not be appearing at the 49th New York Film Festival. He was never expected. However, it was hoped Mojtaba Mirtahmasb would be able to promote his recent collaboration with Panahi on the international festival circuit. Ominously though, Mirtahmasb’s passport was confiscated just as he was leaving to attend Toronto and he was subsequently arrested, along with five other Iranian filmmakers. At least Mirtahmasb will have a good idea what to expect. With Panahi, he co-directed This is Not a Film (trailer here), a documentary record of a day in life of the award winning filmmaker chafing under house arrest and a prospective twenty year ban on movie-making, which screens at this year’s NYFF.

For those unfamiliar with his story, Panahi and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof were sentenced to six years in Iranian prison (a.k.a. Hell on Earth) and prohibited from practicing their art for two decades. With his appeal pending, Panahi is confined to his relatively upscale but not all that spacious Tehran flat on the eve of Persian New Year. Since he cannot make a film, he makes This is Not a Film, with the furtive assistance of Mirtahmasb, a digital video camera, and the odd handheld device.

Considering we are simply watching a man putter about his apartment (with Igi, the scene stealing pet iguana), Not a Film is surprisingly engaging. Even under extreme stress, Panahi is clearly a man of considerable wit and charm. We watch as he blocks out a film that might never be produced and listen as he cryptically discusses projects with Mirtahmasb in an effort to shield him from presumed eavesdroppers. These are the small grimly fascinating day-to-day realities of artistic repression in Iran. Just in case any of the significance is lost on viewers, the blank closing credits ought to bring it all home.

Not a Film is a quiet film that resolutely avoids anything that might be deemed provocation. Frankly, the circumstances that gave rise to the not film should never have happened. Yet, since it is here, in its way, Not a Film is an inspiring example of the creative impulse as it flows like water through the cracks of an oppressive state. Indeed, it is already renowned as the film that was smuggled out of Iran in a cake.

To give credit where it is due, the international film festival network has done good work keeping attention focused on Panahi’s plight. The 2010 Cannes Film Festival pointedly reserved an empty chair for the filmmaker when he was not allowed to attend, even though he was chosen to serve on the jury. Earlier this year in New York, the Asia Society hosted a Panahi retrospective to further publicize his case. However, it is important to remember Rasoulof and now Mirtahmasb as well, who are also prisoners of artistic conscience, but might not have the same name recognition on the world stage. Highly recommended, Not a Film screens this Thursday (10/13) at Alice Tully Hall, as a Main Slate selection of the 2011 New York Film Festival.