Sunday, April 1, 2012

This Is Not A Film ★★★½

Heartbreaking And Simultaneously Uplifting

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

I’m the first to admit (and shamefully so) that my experience with Iranian cinema is next to none. Earlier this year I saw the brilliant, yet puzzling Certified Copy by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. And now This Is Not A Film, about Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Panahi is one of the most prolific filmmakers to come out of Iran and has made an impact around the world as one of the most important filmmakers of our time. In 2009 he was arrested for opposing Iran’s regime and sentenced to six years in prison along with a twenty-year ban from filmmaking. In 2010, while still under house arrest, This Is Not A Film was made showing one day in the life of Panahi’s current predicament. This film was so secretive, so risky that it had to be smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside of a cake for a last minute submission to last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Basically what anyone like myself who has very limited knowledge of Iranian cinema should know before seeing this film is to know is that it is a very painstaking process to get a film made in Iran. While we think that the ratings system in the U.S. is a headache, there is a strict approval process from script to film in Iran, which is one of the many reasons that Panahi has the reputation he does. He’s made films that have criticized the treatment of women in Iran as well as taking what some have called an Iranian form of neorealism oftentimes using non-professional actors in the main roles of his films. Panahi is the true definition of an artist. He’s someone who longs for the opportunity to express himself and having his voice silenced as it has been is devastating to not only him but us as an audience.

The film starts off slow as we see Panahi making himself breakfast and making a phone call his lawyer to discuss whether or not she thinks his sentence will be reduced and if the ban will be lifted. She’s hopeful, but as we now know, neither the sentence nor the ban was reduced or lifted, sadly. Later, he makes a call to a friend of his who we later learn is another Iranian filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Panahi has invited him over to shoot a reenactment of Panahi’s latest film that was never made about a woman who is locked up by her father to prevent her from enrolling at an art school she’s been accepted to, the idea being that he is banned from directing and writing, but there was never anything said about him acting his story out.

Panahi uses white tape to section off his living room to illustrate the constrictions of the young woman’s room. He begins to discuss the opening shots and sets the overall mood of the film. He shows us pictures and video on his iPhone of the two actresses he was debating between for the lead role as well as the location he wanted to use for the indoor setting. Midway through this reenactment however, Panahi’s mood changes quite suddenly and we witness the heartbreak and frustration on his face. He asks himself why he’s even bothering, as movies are meant to be seen and shared by the world, not read out loud in a living room.

This one scene in particular is the defining reason, at least for me, as to why this film works so well. I’ve often been so removed from understanding what motivates artists in any field. Not that I have anything against different forms of art, I’m just not someone who understands process when it comes to creating something. I don’t know what it means to connect with a character from an acting standpoint, nor do I know what it means to express myself through an abstract drawing or painting. I respect the work from an outsider’s perspective and yet, I fully sympathize with Panahi’s situation especially after witnessing this one scene on film. I see how dreadful and truly terrifying it is for an artist like Panahi to essentially be handcuffed from doing what he loves.

Panahi spends the rest of the film doing a variety of things, which includes viewing DVDs of his films and commenting on specific scenes that exemplified to him what filmmaking truly is: collaboration, inspiration and above all, passion. There’s improvisation, there’s magic, there’s all sorts of different things that can happen when making a film and Panahi relishes in every minute of it. It also includes more phone calls and finally a conversation with his apartment building’s maintenance man, where Panahi accompanies him down each floor of his round until the film abruptly ends as they walk outside.

I walked out of this film feeling helpless for this man but also strangely hopeful because a filmmaker like Panahi exists in the first place. He is a man who stands up for what he believes in, has been silenced as a result of his work, and conveys the notion that despite the odds, he isn’t done yet. It’s the passion that exists in all of us; that idea that Andy Dufresne talked about in The Shawshank Redemption; they can lock us up and throw away the key, but they can’t get the hope that we hold inside.

This Is Not A Film is one of those most honest depictions of what it means to love one’s work that I have seen in a long time. It reminds us that film will always remain a staple of any culture and that no matter whose voice is silenced, the truth will always come out. 

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