In March 2010 Jafar Panahi, one of Iran’s most internationally known and award winning film makers was arrested for committing propaganda against the Iranian Government. The staunch anti regime director was banned from film making and scriptwriting for 20 years and as of 2011 was under house arrest, awaiting the appeal of a six year jail sentence. While wasting his days at home, Panahi gets the idea to ask a fellow director to visit him and pick up a camera. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb films Panahi in his high rise apartment as he watches TV, takes phone calls and runs through his most recently rejected screenplay, careful all the while to avoid making a film.
Jafar Panahi isn’t a film maker I’d previously come across and in a strange twist of fate, had the Iranian government not imprisoned him, it is possible that myself and many others would have lived out our lives without knowledge of the man or his films. What Panahi does with This is Not a Film is to give the viewer a fascinating insight into the mind of a tortured man as well as the mind of a film maker. Panahi often explains his predicament through the use of film clips and draws on his back catalogue to provide parallels between himself and his characters. The film is truly absorbing.
This is Not a Film begins with a brief explanation as to how Panahi has found himself in this situation, what his punishment is and how the film was smuggled out of Iran. This was achieved by placing a flash drive in a birthday cake. Early on, Panahi films himself with a static camera before getting the idea to involve his colleague. Mirtahmasb’s arrival is followed by a frantic and fevered enactment of the opening scenes of Panahi’s most recent screenplay, a story of a girl trapped inside her small house. The story has many parallels with his own and the director talks with great passion and understanding about the topic. All of a sudden though he breaks down and utters the line “Why make a film if you can tell a film?” This powerful and philosophical line is Panahi’s realisation that even his passionate reading and explanation cannot do justice to what a camera and actors can do. It is also a moment in which he realises that he will be unable to continue with his passion for many years. It’s a tender and heart wrenching moment.
Panahi’s love for film making is evident as we wander though his house. There are stacks of DVDs, a whole wall of Charlie Chaplin photos and a wall dedicated to housing all manner of antique film cameras. It’s deeply upsetting to see a man with such a fervour reduced to explaining his ideas using masking tape and a rug. The action is set against an outside would which we can’t penetrate. Panahi watches from his tower as the streets below erupt with the chaos of a night of fireworks. Initially I presumed this was gun fire and it is suggested that there is a smattering of gun fire in amongst the fireworks. Panahi’s disconnection from the outside world increases any thoughts of problems in the world below and he has to rely on phone calls and the news to keep him informed. It is also notable that on the day of filming, the Japanese Tsunami stuck. We get Panahi’s reaction to this event as well as many others captured on film.
I have to admit that it took me some time to get into this ‘not’ film. I had no prior knowledge of the director and his predicament has little or no impact on my life. It took me a while to warm to him as he doesn’t come across as particularly likeable at times. My favourite sequence is the final one which is so great it seems as though it must have been scripted. As Mirtahmasb leaves for the day a young man exits the elevator to collect the apartment’s trash. The man is quick witted, polite and intelligent and the director takes an interest in him and his life. The two descend the elevator together, discussing their futures. It is in this sequence in which the lines between documentary and drama become the most blurred. It’s a wonderfully captured scene which ends with the young man leaving the compound with the rubbish as the director looks onward from his gates onto scenes of fire, chaos and uncertainty in what could be a metaphor for his own mind.
Overall This is Not a Film is a very interesting and deeply powerful film about a subject which needed airing. Somehow with the use of one camera and an iPhone the director creates a mesmerizing story of what it is like to be held against your will and being unable to work and after a shaky start I found the whole thing fascinating. It provides incredible insight into the mind of a master film maker and at only 75 minutes long is a movie I highly recommend seeking out.