"This Is Not a Film" - Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (2011)

Ordinarily I ignore a film’s production backstory, since being mindful of those details undermines my immersion in the diegetic world, and hence the story the filmmaker wants to tell.  But with This Is Not a Film (In Film Nist, 2011) I make an emphatic exception.  In this case the production backstory is essential to the film’s subject – freedom of expression in the face of a despotic regime.

The background story concerns the distinguished Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s arrest and confinement by the Iranian authorities following the widely disputed 2009 Iranian presidential “election”.  Panahi, who had supported the defeated Green Movement candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was arrested shortly afterwards when he attended a cemetery gathering to mourn the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who had been gunned down on the streets during post-election protests.   Although Panahi was later released from prison, he was banned from leaving the country and was rearrested in March 2010.  Then on 20 December 2010, Panahi was convicted on the charge of plotting to “commit crimes against the country’s national security” and was sentenced to six years in prison and banned for 20 years from “making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media as well as leaving the country” [1].  The movie This Is Not a Film was made in March 2011 when Panahi was under house arrest awaiting the results of his legal appeal of this conviction. 

Actually it is amazing that Panahi managed to have a film made at all under these restrictive circumstances.  Here he is, a man arrested and confined in order to stifle his voice and forbidden to engage in any kind of film activity, shown on camera talking about his situation.  This work (not labelled a “film”, of course, but merely an “effort”) is the collaboration of Panahi and documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.  It was shot during the Nouruz (Iranian New Year) period with the events shown covering Chaharshanbe Souri, the Iranian equivalent of New Year’s Eve.  How they managed to smuggle the finished film out of the country must have been a story in itself, because it was apparently coded onto a flash drive that was concealed inside a birthday cake and was eventually screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

This Is Not a Film opens with Panahi shown attending to routine activities inside his apartment.  The focus seems to be on the uneventful tempo of isolated life in the apartment, while outside is heard the sound of explosions, to which Panahi pays no evident attention.  Given the relatively boring nature of Panahi’s activities, the viewer’s attention is naturally drawn to what may be happening outside.  If the noises are a manifestation of some civil disturbance, why is Panahi so unmindful of it?  It soon becomes evident that this day is Chaharshanbe Souri (“Fireworks Wednesday”), because it takes place on the Wednesday before Nouruz, the Iranian New Year’s day.  Chaharshanbe Souri is somewhat like July 4th in the US or like Guy Fawke’s Day in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand: people like to celebrate it with raucous noise and firecrackers.  Actually this day is of far more ancient vintage than its Western counterparts – it is perhaps 4,000 years old, and representative, as is Nouruz itself, of pure Persian culture.  On Chaharshanbe Souri in addition to setting fireworks, people like to make bonfires and leap over them, an act that has some symbolic significance.   It’s also a day that can be seen to represent a certain freedom from routine constraints, even rowdyism, as people engage in celebratory antics on the street.  Not surprisingly, the conservative religious authorities of Iranian society condemn the day and its activities as un-Islamic, but they have so far not been able to suppress its observance.
Relatively early on in This Is Not a Film, Panahi does something that both he (see for example  The Mirror, 1997) and his sometimes collaborator Abbas Kiarostami have done before –  he breaks the “fourth wall” of the film’s “dramatic stage” and begins to talk straight into the camera about the filmmaking going on.  By doing this he actively engages the audience in his concern of how one goes about expressing one’s thoughts in film form.  At first in this film, the shots of Panahi had been photographed by a statically placed camera, but soon his collaborator on this occasion, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, arrives and begins filming Panahi himself.  The subsequent dialogue is then understood to be between Panahi and Mirtahmasb, but we viewers, as silent witnesses, are presumed to be part of the conversation, too.

Panahi now speaks of a film script that he had prepared and for which he had been attempting to get permission to film.  It is based on Chekov’s short story, “From the Diary of a Young Girl” [2]. With the possibility of that filming now closed off, however, Panahi here decides to discuss how that film would have looked in terms of layout and narrative structure.  The proposed script concerns a young woman from a conservative family who wishes to attend college.  Her father in the story forbids her to do that and has her locked up inside the house.  So the film script concerns a girl facing the same kind of suppression that Panahi now faces.  As he describes his plans for this story to Mirtahmasb, we get some interesting insights into various aspects of Panahi’s filmmaking approach.

One of the most interesting, to me, revelations, concerns Panahi’s modest remarks to the effect that he doesn’t know much about the technical details of cinematography.  Filmmakers around the world have varying degrees of expertise at this level, with some being expert camera operators and others leaving the camera work to professional technicians.  For example on this score, I also found it surprising to hear some time ago the accomplished Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi remark that the great Federico Fellini never ever looked through a camera lens.  Nevertheless, given the technical cinematic mastery of Panahi’s previous films and the fact that he has been a film editor in connection with some works directed by others, I would have expected him, in particular, to be highly knowledgeable about film cinematography.

Another interesting stylistic point is the way Panahi schematically maps out his proposed camera setup layout with masking tape on his livingroom rug.  Some filmmakers like to do this kind of thing – a sort of overhead-map style layout of where the camera positions should be – while others envision their films in terms of just what will be seen in the film frame.  These two perspectives, which we may refer to as the “architectural” and the “subjective”, are quite different.  The architectural camera map layout perspective is objectivist, a top-down approach that has an implicit view-from-the-sky attitude that keeps all aspects of the scene in consideration.  The film-frame perspective is local and subjective; it is the perspective of a single observer.  Of course both perspectives are useful in filmmaking, and Panahi does refer to the subjective perspective, too, on various occasions in the film; but it is still a question as to which perspective is preferred by the director. It is my understanding that Michelangelo Antonioni, a visual movement master of both the camera and his players, also preferred to think of the scene from the “architectural” perspective.

Also like Antonioni, Panahi says that he generally constructs his film in response to the environmental context of the story: the setting helps determine the narrative structure.  In fact he usually doesn’t map everything out beforehand, because he wants the film to be partially constructed at the time of the shooting – certain unexpected aspects of the visual narrative may emerge during the filmmaking process. He illustrates this filmmaking aspect by showing clips from two of his earlier works, The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997) and Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh, 2003), which featured unexpected responses on the part of his unprofessional actors that were incorporated into and added to the narratives.  In fact such an emergent event apparently occurs in This Is Not a Film, too, towards the end, when a student moonlighting as a trash collector shows up at Panahi’s door and Panahi then goes on to converse with him in the elevator.  

Panahi’s desire to capture emergent events and incorporate them into his films reflects an emphasis on spontaneity and authenticity.  This underlies his remark that he has always shot his films outdoors because of the Iranian government’s restrictions on women’s dress in films.  Presumably he finds it artificial and unrealistic to show women invariably wearing the hejab in indoor scenes, so he restricts his action to the outdoors.  Like all Iranian filmmakers working inside the country, though, Panahi’s films do not make overt political statements, and there are no villains.  They simply show people trying to cope with the social circumstances in which they find themselves.

Returning to the events of This Is Not a Film, after Panahi discusses the outline of his proposed film for awhile, he loses interest in further discussions of it.  After all, he says, “if we could tell a film, why make a film”.  Compare this to Alfred Hitchcock, who famously remarked that the thrill of making a film was in its planning.  The actual shooting of the film, for Hitchcock, was merely a boring implementation of the film idea and not a creative activity.

The film events in This Is Not a Film finally move to Mirtahmasb making his departure for the evening to attend to his own family’s Nouruz celebration.  But just when  Mirtahmasb is leaving, the young trash collector unexpectedly shows up; and Panahi decides to accompany him as he makes his rounds collecting trash from the various floors in the apartment building.  The young man cautiously, but genuinely, talks about his life, his difficulties finding a job, and other aspects about his life in Tehran.  When the elevator gets to the bottom, where the trash is deposited in larger containers, Panahi’s camera looks out on the wide world that is beyond the apartment gates and is full of joyous fireworks.  On this view the film closes.

Given the constraints in which Panahi had to work, this film is a fascinating and a valuable testament.  I am not aware of Panahi ever having overtly expressed any hostility to the Iranian government, but he has been muzzled and imprisoned.  Iran now has serious issues concerning:
  •  basic human rights, such as free expression
  •  the rule of law
  •  open democracy. 
Besides the film’s backstory, there have been further, ongoing events.  Iran’s Council of Public Culture has declared The Iranian House of Cinema, Iran’s largest professional organization for filmmakers, to be illegal [3].  Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was arrested in September 2011 as he was leaving the country.  In December 2011, Mirtahmasb was released, but in that same month Panahi’s legal appeal of his prison sentence was denied.

  1. "Filmmaker Jafar Panahi Sentenced to Six Years in Prison", The Green Voice of Freedom,  20/12/2010, http://en.irangreenvoice.com/article/2010/dec/20/2581.
  2. This is a one-page story, and you may be able to find a copy of it here.
  3. Iran Daily Brief, December 29, 2011, http://www.irandailybrief.com/?p=5695

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