Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Panahi’s This is Not a Film

The Iranian Islamist regime continues to develop new methods of oppressing its people. Despite international protests, the government upheld Jafar Panahi’s conviction on ill defined thought crimes. However, it has lifted his infamous house arrest as he waits to serve his six year prison term. Ironically, according to those who have spoken with Panahi, he would prefer to start serving his sentence, so he can move forward with his life, but the regime has perversely left him to twist in the wind, banned from filmmaking, prohibited from traveling, and unable to make any long term plans.

Unfortunately, many in the international film community who rallied to Panahi’s cause, have been somewhat deceived by his relative liberty. Meanwhile, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi’s collaborator on his latest but hopefully not last film, faces his own set of criminal charges. At least he will have a good idea what to expect. With Panahi, Mirtahmasb co-directed This is Not a Film (trailer here), a documentary record of a day in the life of the award winning filmmaker chafing under house arrest while contemplating his now certain twenty year ban on movie-making, which opens this Friday in New York at Film Forum.

With his doomed appeal still pending, Panahi is confined to his comparatively 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 (a fact that makes him all the more threatening to the regime). We watch as he blocks out scenes for 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. It is already justly renowned as the film that was smuggled out of Iran in a cake. Indeed, it has probably devastated Iran’s bakery exports.

To give credit where it is due, the international film festival network initially did good work speaking out on Panahi’s plight, but their attention has drifted in recent months. It is also important to remember Panahi’s filmmaker colleagues Mohammad Rasoulof (the director of The White Meadows with whom Panahi was originally charged) and Mirtahmasb, who are just as much prisoners of artistic conscience, but might not have the same name recognition on the world stage. Highly recommended, Not a Film should hopefully kick start such efforts when it opens this Wednesday (2/29) at Film Forum.