[29 February 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“The prison is certain they’re not going to acquit you.” The news isn’t good for Jafar Panahi. As his lawyer Farideh Gheyrat tells him over the phone, the appeal they’ve filed with a court in Tehran is a long shot. “The rulings aren’t legal rulings at all,” she continues. “That’s why our legal arguments were not heard. I should say this plain and simple, that the rulings are 100% political and not legal at all.” After they hang up, Panahi remains seated at the dining room table for a moment, and looks directly into the camera, not exactly smiling. “I think I should remove this cast,” he says, “and throw it away.”
Here and elsewhere in This is Not a Film—shot over four days last year, smuggled out of Tehran in a cake—Panahi reminds you of the films he’s made before, like The Mirror (1997), in which the little girl who is playing a little girl looks into the camera and says she wants to remove the cast her character wears, get off the bus where they’re filming, and go home. “I’m not acting anymore,” she screams, when Panahi tries to soothe her from off-screen. Both The Mirror and This is Not a Film include this moment, as well as what follows, namely, a young Panahi and his crew adjusting their camera to keep up with the girl, Mina Mohammad Khani, as she steps onto the sidewalk.
Then, in The Mirror, Panahi might hope to find truth in the girl, out of character. Now, Panahi compares the scene to his current efforts to make this film, to document his frustration with Iranian restrictions. “When I reviewed the shots we had made,” he tells his current documentarian, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, “I realized it seems like pretending in a sense. It is turning out to be a lie and that it is somehow not me.”
This scene in This is Not a Film—opening on 29 February at Film Forum—makes clear the pain of being locked up, enduring the state’s brutal lunacy. At the same time, the movie also wades into another vast moral and philosophical mess, asking how any film might reveal a true experience, or how this one, nominally a documentary, might show a self that is, in any way, him. This is the question that This is Not a Film can’t fully answer, but goes on to ask and re-ask in a number of ways.
In one way, he deals with diurnal details: he spends time with his daughter’s pet iguana, feeding it and filming it as it plants its feet on his laptop keyboard (this as Panahi also notes how difficult to find any sort of “truth” online, as many sites are blocked). In another way, Panahi tries to bend the abstractions of legal edicts, as he begins to “tell” the film he was preparing at the time of his arrest, a film about a girl whose parents lock her in the house to keep her from enrolling at the university. To help you imagine the story, he puts tape on the rug to mark the girl’s space, acts out her anger, and suggests where the camera might be to show her POV. But he stops again, noting, “If we could tell a film, why make a film?” To illustrate why a film “must first be made for us to be able to explain it later,” he shows a scene from 2000’s The Circle (Dayereh), the one where Hossein becomes upset at the jewelers. Marveling at the non-professional actors’ performance, Panahi submits, “How could I tell before I made the film that Hossein should lean against the wall and do the thing that he did with his eyes, and that I had never seen before? I mean, when I told him to act, he did that all by himself.”
Maybe not all by himself. For here the movie, showing Panahi near his TV screen, recorded as he discusses this other recording, reminds you that film is not only a collaborative art, but also a process, understood in watching it as much as in making it. And part of that process is parsing lies and truth, a focus that looms as a particularly painful irony, given Panahi’s situation, and the politics, fears, and lies that have shaped it. (In October 2011, the appeal was refused, meaning the director must serve a six-year prison sentence and is banned from making films for 20 years; he is currently appealing again, to the Iran’s supreme court, even as Mojtaba Mirtahmasb has been arrested and charged with espionage for working for the BBC.)
This is Not a Film offers multiple angles on this situation, on how he sees it and sees himself. Panahi watches the street from his balcony or listens to off-screen fireworks, looks through his cell phone camera, pointed at Mirtahmasb (“Take a shot of me in case I’m arrested,” Mirtahmasb jokes) or, when his friend has gone home, rides the elevator with the apartment building’s custodian. The young man is taking out the trash, Panahi is filming. “I do all kinds of things,” reports the custodian, “and I study on the side, too.”
Here again, the film poses the question of what matters, how space and time merge, why you watch films. As the light dims, and the custodian becomes a shadow moving away from the camera, Panahi asks after his future. He looks forward to escaping traffic and trash, he says. “But do you know what’s the worst of all? The worst thing is when you graduate with a master’s degree and then there’s no job for you.” Exactly.