The revolution of inaction: This Is Not a Film
Made under house arrest, Jafar Panahi’s In Film Nist (This Is Not a Film) breaks all the rules, says Amy Taubin
Smuggled into France on a USB flash drive rumoured to have been hidden in a cake, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmaseb’s In Film Nist (This Is Not a Film) gave the Cannes festival – and moviemaking itself – an incontestable reason for being.
Viewed under any circumstances, the movie (a more appropriate designation than the ‘film’ of the title, since it’s an entirely digital production) would merit a high place among the great works of Iranian cinema and modernist (ie reflexive) documentary. Posed against the deadly serious grandiosity of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and the ironically apocalyptic psychodramatics of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Panahi’s extreme poverty of means (the movie was shot with a modest digital camera and a cellphone) could not have represented a starker contrast.
The forced limitation of the mise en scène (Panahi is under house arrest in his flat), the brilliance of his associative ruminations on the ontology of film and filmmaking, the lively depiction of his daily life – where the mundane and the coincidental occasionally coalesce into evanescent metaphors – the risk entailed in making the movie (and the absolute necessity, for Panahi, of taking that risk) add up to that much overused (especially at Cannes) designation: masterpiece.
While his December 2010 sentence – six years in prison and a 20-year ban on making films – is under appeal, Panahi has been confined to the comfortable flat he shares with his wife and daughter. It is 15 March 2011 – New Year’s Day in Iran – and the filmmaker is alone, the rest of his family out visiting relatives. He takes the opportunity to do the forbidden – to turn on his camera.
He shoots himself eating breakfast, talking on his mobile with his lawyer (the news isn’t good: while his sentence possibly could be reduced, he will definitely have to serve time in prison) and feeding Igi, the family’s huge pet iguana, who lumbers around the flat as if it was his prison and climbs over Panahi (“Your claws are too sharp, Igi”) as if he was a wall to be scaled. All the while we hear at a distance what sounds like gunfire, but turns out to be traditional New Year fireworks, in defiance of government prohibition.
Sensing something false in his relationship to the camera, Panahi calls on a filmmaker friend to help him: Mojtaba Mirtahmaseb, a specialist in ‘making of’ documentaries. Why not have him document the process of not making a film instead? But, discontented with being merely the subject of Mirtahmaseb’s camera, Panahi turns his cellphone lens on his friend to depict their collaboration as a hall of mirrors.
And then the non-movie takes an unexpected turn. A young man arrives in the lift, explaining that he is an art student working as a substitute janitor and he’s come to collect the garbage. Do we believe him? Does Panahi? Is he a government spy, or perhaps an actor, hired in advance by the non-director? In any case, Panahi rides down with him in the lift that – unavoidably – suggests a jail cell, recording the often comical process of the garbage collection.
When they reach the courtyard, we see through the lens of Panahi’s camera an enormous bonfire outside the building. “Don’t go out there, Mr Panahi. They’ll see you with the camera,” warns the young man. He might as well tell the iguana not to the climb the walls of his prison as tell a man whose existence is inseparable from the movies he makes not to shoot the marvellously fortuitous final image of This Is Not a Film.
More on This is Not a Film: Gabe Klinger blogs from Cannes (May 2011)
The green badge of courage: Gabe Klinger talks to filmmaker Rafi Pitts about the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof and his open letter to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad Badlands (March 2011)
Offside reviewed by Julian Graffy (June 2006)
Crimson Gold reviewed by Julian Graffy (November 2003)
The Circle reviewed by Julian Graffy (October 2001)