On Sept. 24, news broke that Iran would withdraw its entries from the 2013 Academy Awards in protest of the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims. As we know, American-Iranian tensions run high, but this ill-timed move impedes Iran’s recent cultural breakthrough into the West. Asghar Farhadi won the country its first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar only six months ago for his masterpiece A Separation. He delivered an important speech that night, praising his country’s “glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”
These politics have tried to hide filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who in 2010 was slapped a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on making movies for, among other things, “assembly [of] propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Panahi’s work, which includes The White Balloon and Crimson Gold, portrays hardships afflicting men and *gasp* women in Iranian society, similar in style and intent to post-war Italian neorealism. This fearless artist, activist and human refuses to be silenced and has drafted a stunning statement with This is Not a Film, which he smuggled into the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a USB flash drive hidden inside a cake.
This is Not a Film is some sort of miracle — of what, I am not sure. We are assured this is not a film, as the title declares with Magritte-esque mischief (his ban specifies “film-making,” so this exercise must be fine, right?). This is a portrait of an artist — not a document, for Pahani directs, writes (whatever that entails) and edits, granting him illicit control over this work. After beginning with a few static (and immaculately composed) tripod shots of him eating breakfast and feeding his iguana, Igi, in his apartment, Panahi hands the camera to his friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who serves as a prophylactic separating the artist from the art. The meat here has Mirtahmasb to thank, not so much for his cinematic contributions but for his humbling comments. “You are not directing. It’s an offense,” he reminds Panahi when told to “cut.” “So, I’m not the director anymore,” Panahi replies with a laugh. His smile turns cold processing the thought.
The key set piece in This is Not a Film, if it has one, considers these ramifications. On his living room carpet, Panahi places strips of masking tape in a box, outlining a room where his next film would have taken place. He reads from his script, using his hands and feet to visualize ideas for shots and blocking. These concepts prove potent — Panahi lowers his hand from a ceiling fan, covers a few feet of air, describes an inexistent rope and moves a chair underneath. He need not mention suicide. Panahi breaks down upon realizing, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” Frantic to validate his art, Panahi then scans through DVDs of his past work to highlight a scene in Crimson Gold when amateur actor Hossain Emadeddin (a real-life schizophrenic) did “the directing on [him].” Emadeddin’s performance was unpredictable — emotion without ego — and “leads you to how you explain the film.” That Panahi champions actors over other filmic devices like editing and directing speaks to his humanism and respect for his colleagues — untapped qualities when holed in an apartment alone. “The film must first be made for us to be able to explain it later,” Panahi concludes in a statement so banal it grazes wisdom.
Pondering that quote, I realize I am analyzing This is Not a Film like a film. There are some beautiful shots here that could not possibly be framed without an eye for aesthetics and mind for meaning. It is safe to consider this a “film” when examining its construction, which is purposeful even if likely derived from chance encounters. Fellow Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-E’temad calls Panahi as the latter sits on a couch, perusing his laptop. While the two speak about their peers’ support for Panahi’s plight, Igi the iguana crawls on a sofa across the room. Just as Bani-E’temad says, “Everyone is getting scared off,” Panahi looks at the iguana and cuts to a shot of it hiding in a bookcase. Too clever for coincidence, I’d say. He lets the iguana direct him, but he ultimately directs the audience.
At the end, Panahi finally wields the camera and exits the apartment in a brilliant sequence I would rather not spoil. Earlier, however, there is an analogous moment that commanded my attention. Gunshots outside his apartment interrupt one of his monologues, and he opens up a window to inspect. His ears register the violence and a hint of sadness stains his face. He looks down, in despair, we think. Nope: He pulls out his iPhone to record the sounds and images for all else to see. This is Not a Film is not a plea for help but rather a display of defiance against unjust forces. In any other movie, the hero picks up a pistol or an AK-47. Here, Jafar Panahi picks up his camera and shoots away.
This is Not a Film plays tonight at 7:15 p.m. and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at Cornell Cinema.