NYFF 2011. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi's "This Is Not a Film"

A 'micro-scaled masterpiece... that makes Panahi's artistry all the more heartening and his imprisonment all the more infuriating."
David Hudson

"Nearly all of the writing thus far on This Is Not a Film has concentrated on its political context and production circumstances — already legend — and the courageous gesture the film represents," wrote Girish Shambu late last month as he looked back on the highlights of Toronto and named Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi's collaborative effort as his personal "Best-of-Fest." "This is entirely appropriate, but the film also holds enormous potential for future analysis by film critics as a work of meta-cinema that asks fundamental questions like: What is the difference between a screenplay and a film? (Once upon a time, in the nouvelle vague era, an answer to this question was simply: 'miss en scene.') Is the 'director' of a film always a single, unified, human person? In a film, can the role of the director 'move around,' in non-human form, attaching at one moment to the unexpected gesture or movement of a nonprofessional actor, at another moment to a striking setting or piece of decor that takes over a shot or scene and 'rules' it?… Lest I might have unintentionally given the impression that it is a dry and 'academic' treatise, let me quickly add that this is a very funny, surprising, and deeply moving film — but no less philosophical because of these virtues."

To back up a bit first, let's turn to Vadim Rizov, writing for Fandor: "It's hard to imagine someone showing up for This Is Not a Film unaware of Panahi's imprisonment; he's now more prominent as a political martyr than he was as merely an arthouse filmmaker. If not, a brief recap: in 2009, Panahi wore a long green scarf as a juror at the Montreal Film Festival; such gestures, plus his repeatedly making films that run afoul of the censors, led to a spurious trial for shooting an 'anti-regime' work in his own house ending with a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on leaving the country or making films. While waiting for his trial, he surreptitiously made a digital feature, which he smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake." In the paragraph preceding this one, Vadim notes that Panahi's "The Circle (2000) follows women whose every self-preserving move is illegal in Iranian society; Crimson Gold (2003) is bookended by a unassuming pizza delivery guy's robbery-suicide; and Offside (2006) follows soccer-crazy girls breaking the law to get into a World Cup qualifying match (women aren't allowed into Iranian stadiums). In all three films, criminality isn't of the Ten Commandments-universal kind, but stems from conditions of widespread inequality that Panahi diagrams with ruthless precision. This Is Not a Film is his latest 'crime' movie, with the director himself starring as a 'criminal' out to make one last score before being sent off to jail."

"The work feels completely effortless," notes Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson, "but my money says it's an elaborate sound and image construction: though it claims to be a day in the life of Panahi, Mirtahmasb (recently snatched at the airport in Tehran while en route to TIFF) explained in interviews that the film was shot over four days." At one point, Panahi "begins to read from a screenplay of the film he was preparing to shoot (and had already cast) before running afoul of the law, the story of a girl from a traditional family admitted to study in an arts university against the wishes of her parents, who lock her in their house when they leave on a trip…. The entirety of Panahi's unmade film was to take place — like the one we are in the process of watching — inside of a house. (He had never shot interiors before, he mentions, because of the cultural taboo surrounding the need for so-called women's modesty.) Panahi thus skirts the ban by reading and acting out a screenplay that has already been written, taping lines on his carpet to erect a floor plan of the interior he would have filmed, and 'dressing the set,' unconsciously bringing to mind the design of none other than Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003). (Or is it conscious?) He abruptly stops, overcome by the realization that telling a film and making a film are not, and can never be, the same thing. 'If we could tell a film, then why make a film?' Or, indeed, why write about one?"

Michael J Anderson argues that "Panahi's effort additionally provides the latest entry into the fact-fiction hybrid that Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990) inaugurated (at least in the context of the international festival circuit), with performativity providing as key a motif for Panahi and Mirtahmasb as it once would for the former's mentor. The banned filmmaker likewise draws on Kiarostami's more recent Shirin (2008) in embedding his own un-filmed work within the diegesis of This Is Not a Film. In this respect, the tacit discourse on censorship that occurs throughout Kiarostami and especially Shirin becomes a matter of a terrible practical necessity in Panahi's latest."

For Fernando F Croce, writing at the House Next Door, "the film grows from a mere first-person diary into a portrait of absences gradually filled, a Kafkaesque comedy of anxiety, a procession of unstressed yet sublime visual metaphors, and a master class on the relationship between subject and camera lens. Displaying a profound understanding of off-screen space and real time, this micro-scaled masterpiece tempers its despair with an unwavering sense of hope (optimism, even) that makes Panahi's artistry all the more heartening and his imprisonment all the more infuriating."

"Nothing overtly cinematic here," writes AO Scott in the New York Times, "just a video diary of daily life. And yet the plainness of Mr Panahi's self-presentation — nothing to see here, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad! — is the source of the film's sly, subversive power and also of its formal ingenuity. No authority can prevent This Is Not a Film from being exactly what it is not supposed to be, and nobody who holds onto the faith that art can be a weapon against tyranny should miss it."

More from Richard Brody (New Yorker), Farran Nehme, Karina Longworth (Voice), Elise Nakhnikian (House Next Door), R Emmet Sweeney (Movie Morlocks) and Scott Tobias (AV Club, B). Earlier: Daniel Kasman and the roundup from Cannes.

Update: David Bordwell from Vancouver: "Rerunning a scene from Crimson Gold reminds him that during filming, a project swerves into unexpected territory: a performer's physical being creates a texture than can't be captured in language, let alone planned. 'A film must be made before you can explain it.' This isn't just a titillating theoretical aside. It acknowledges the Iranian cinema's gift for discovering a  spontaneous specificity in the most everyday events."

Updates, 10/15: "A Tehran appeals court has upheld a six-year jail sentence and 20-year filmmaking and travel ban against international award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi," reports the AFP. "The government-run newspaper Iran confirmed the ruling in its Saturday edition, saying: 'The charges he was sentenced for are acting against national security and propaganda against the regime.' The daily also said that a six-year jail sentence against another Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Rasoulof, was reduced to one year in the same appeal."

"What [Panahi has] achieved here is a total, true auteurism, a reclamation for political means of a mode of thinking that has long been debased for commercial measures," writes Phil Coldiron in Slant. "The extent to which this, or any of what came before it, was scripted is irrelevant: Like all great cinema, it is beyond belief."

Henry Stewart for the L: " Subversively, brilliantly, This is Not a Film most certainly is — a great and important one at that."

Update, 10/17: "Jafar Panahi is in danger of being reduced to a cause," worries Chris Wisniewski at Reverse Shot. "If he deserves to be called one of the world's great filmmakers — and he surely does — it is on the basis of his extraordinary oeuvre, not because of the oppressive actions of an autocratic regime. For Panahi, though, filmmaking has always had a political dimension. From his debut feature, The White Balloon, through 2006's Offside, Panahi has explored contemporary urban life in Iran through intelligent and humanistic narratives that touch, ever so delicately, on issues of class and gender. Never a didactic or polemical filmmaker, Panahi puts character and story first, thus allowing the political realities that structure his characters' lives to reveal themselves slowly, lending an authenticity that a more direct approach might compromise. To lose a filmmaker of this caliber at the peak of his career is a staggering blow for world cinema. All of which is to say that This Is Not a Film… is more than a great, devastating piece of moviemaking; the movie (smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a USB drive inside of a cake) is something of a cinematic miracle."

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