Take away his pen, and a writer will still find a way to write, but ban an Iranian filmmaker from making films, and what does he do? In the case of irrepressible auteur Jafar Panahi, it’ll take more than an arrest and 20-year filmmaking ban to silence the Iranian New Wave master. Released from prison but ordered not to direct, write screenplays, give interviews or leave the country, Panahi tests his luck with “This Is Not a Film,” showing himself unbroken by censorship. If pic could be smuggled out to Cannes, then it could find sympathetic auds elsewhere as well.
Pic assumes a familiarity with Panahi’s recent persecution, which sparked an international outcry after the award-winning director of such soft-spoken, humanist tales as “The Circle” and “Offside” was arrested on March 1, 2010, for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” in support of those protesting the re-election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One year later, on March 15, 2011, Panahi dared to turn the camera on himself, enlisting helmer Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who specializes in “behind-the-scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films”) for what at first appears to be a mundane day-in-the-life exercise.
Panahi sits at his kitchen table eating breakfast when he calls Mirtahmasb. Rather than discuss by phone, he instructs his colleague to drop by to discuss a few ideas. “Just don’t tell anyone you’re coming over,” he says, clearly aware of the danger in what they’re about to do. Next we see Panahi’s bedroom, empty as his phone messages play aloud. Because he has been forbidden from directing, others must do it for him; hence, one message features his son explaining that he set up the camera on a chair.
Such precautions are strictly semantic, of course. Panahi can call this assembly whatever he pleases (the end credits refer to it as “an effort by” him and Mirtahmasb, with all other credits/thanks left blank), but Iranian authorities aren’t likely to share his sense of humor. Besides, Iranian directors are notorious for spinning elegant parables from minimalist situations, such as buying a goldfish (Panahi’s debut, “The White Balloon”) or losing a pair of shoes (“Children of Heaven”), and this project feels none the slimmer for its humble constraints. If anything, it marks a courageous act of non-violent protest.
If Panahi can’t give interviews, then he will tell his own story, beginning with a reading of the screenplay he wasn’t allowed to film. Laying tape across his living room floor to delineate the apartment where the story takes place, Panahi summarizes the first few shots in the story, about a young woman whose parents forbid her to attend university, locking her in a room where she spies a handsome stranger through her window.
Like Lars von Trier’s conceptual “Dogville,” “This Is Not a Film” promises to test our idea of what form a film can take. Required to play all the roles, Panahi is overcome by emotion and interrupts himself, asking, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” The way he sees it, description cannot possibly do justice to the power of cinema, making his punishment seem all the more harsh. Panahi frequently worries that the footage is turning out to be a lie. “It is not me,” he frets, and we wonder just how much he’s holding back.
As “This Is Not a Film” unspools, Panahi’s involvement comes to feel more and more like direction in the traditional sense. At first, he is careful to remain the only character on camera, ostensibly a precaution in case others might be punished for colluding with him on the project. Then his pet Iguana, Igi, makes a cameo, followed by a yappy dog belonging to Panahi’s downstairs neighbor, Shima (she remains out of frame). A delivery man hands a bag of food through the door, unaware that he’s guest-starring in Panahi’s non-film. Finally, a friendly college student drops by to collect his trash, temporarily subbing in for the building custodian. Panahi can’t help making an actor out of him, with the lad reminiscing about the day the authorities came to arrest Panahi as the two share an elevator ride together.
This would be the film’s big setpiece, conducted as explosions go off all around them. The noises, alarming when we first hear them, turn out to be nothing more than firecrackers. Panahi’s day of filming falls on Fireworks Wednesday, which marks the Persian New Year — a holiday that makes innocuous law-breakers of many, at least according to a news report Panahi watches, in which the president decrees fireworks illegal. Standing at his balcony, filming the revelry with his iPhone, he seems to be saying that directing is more defiant an act than lighting a firecracker or two. Truth be told, Panahi’s poignant “Film” is infinitely more explosive.