Iranian film director Jafar Panahi was arrested in 2010 for making “propaganda against the Iranian Republic.” He was placed under house arrest for a number of months before he faced a prison sentence and a two–decade ban from directing, writing screenplays, leaving Iran or speaking to the media. During the house arrest he made a movie with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, This Is Not A Film (2011), a documentary about his career and current predicament. The movie, housed in a flash drive, was smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake and premiered at Cannes.
That’s a fairly provocative story and the movie became a somewhat legendary mystery, one whose circumstances were told more often than the movie itself was screened. I imagine that is because its escape from Iran and the restraints under which it was made make for better drama than anything that actually exists on the screen, which is an interesting but somewhat underwhelming portrait of forced ennui and the quiet dread of inevitability.
The movie reminded me of If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011), possibly the worst Oscar–nominated movie ever made, which was also about a man awaiting trial for crimes he believed to be righteous. The difference is Panahi, under arrest for speaking his mind, is righteous; the figure in If A Tree Falls, an eco-conscious arsonist, was speaking his mind through destruction. What the two movies have in common is a sense of tedium, the horrible march to a fate they don’t control. There aren’t any emotional fireworks in This Is Not A Film, just resignation that Panahi lives in a place where his thoughts are punishable by law. Perhaps the most outrageous thing about the movie is its lack of outrage; Panahi isn’t indignant and if he has thoughts on his fate, he doesn’t share them with anger. This is the world he lives in, and he knew that when he made his allegorical films, and now he treats his situation with an odd acceptance. He knows it isn’t right, but those are the rules of the game. “Most websites are filtered,” he says over his computer. “The rest don’t say anything.” He doesn’t even sigh.
He’s more alive when he’s talking about his art. The movie acts as both a retrospective of Panahi’s career and a peek into his creative mind and future projects. It’s paradoxical that Panahi can be so accepting of what is about to happen to him, including the 20-year filmmaking ban, while continuing to plan his next movies, but that may be the same reason that lead him to make critical movies under a government that doesn’t tolerate criticism in the first place; his mind cannot be stopped. It’s fascinating to watch Panahi discuss his movies and to see what a large part in his life they have played. He says he has to “throw away the cast,” of this entire ordeal, a phrase he has taken from one of his first films, about a little girl with a broken arm. One day during shooting the child actress had had enough and removed her prop cast and announced that she wasn’t acting anymore. The petulant tantrum turned out to be the right energy for what Panahi was after and he kept rolling. In This is Not a Film, when discussing his next movie he constructs a plan for the set by placing tape on his carpet as an architectural design. On his hands and knees, he frantically explains how the setting enhances the story. I couldn’t help but think of Tom Hulce, as Mozart, campaigning for The Marriage of Figaro in Amadeus (1984). Mozart was able to convince the emperor to repeal his censorship; it’s doubtful Panahi will have as much luck.
That passion only comes in fits and starts, however, and it would be difficult to say that Panahi does indeed throw away the cast. Much of the movie is devoted to the still and helpless moments before a storm. Panahi’s quiet acquiescence is devastating in its way, but it shows a man who is so unimpressed with what’s happened to him he can hardly be bothered to be upset. He’s completely over it. He’s bored. He watches TV and his old movies, and he has conversations with his pet iguana, whose slow lethargy ably mirrors its owner’s. He gives a half-hearted raison d’etre for the movie itself, “I got tired of sitting home the past few months. I thought I might as well do something.”
Yet, under this bromidic veneer is a simmering and unsettling tension. Mirtahmasb, who does the camerawork, has since been arrested for taking part in the project and that sort of endangerment informs the look of the movie. Despite Panahi’s sly undercutting apathy, the movie and certainly its dramatic release, tell a story of oppression and confinement. This effect is subtle but cumulative, so while you are watching a disinterested protagonist aimlessly mill about, your subconscious is being assaulted by the latent distress to the point that, when that comes to the fore, as when fireworks are set outside Panahi’s apartment but they sound like gunfire, the effect is calamitous. Panahi is putting on a brave face but there’s no doubt he’s aware of his precarious situation. There’s another reason he might have wanted to mention his plans for future movies. This might be the only way he gets to make them.