Sunday, April 15, 2012

An Iranian Film

As we are introduced to him at the start of this film, Jafar Panahi is a middle aged, middle class man living with his wife and daughter in a beautifully furnished flat replete with flat screen TVs, laptop computers and all of the other electronic consumer goods one might expect to see in a typical Western household. When he wakes up, his wife has already left for the day to deliver a New Year gift to her parents, but she still finds the time to leave a message on the answer phone reminding him to water the plants and feed their daughter's pet iguana.

Roughly 10 minutes into the film, he breaks character and reveals to the audience that he has so far has omitted one crucial detail. Jafar Panahi is presently under house arrest in a Tehran tower block facing a six year jail term and a 20 year screenwriting and filmmaking ban. This is Not a Film documents his attempt to 'tell a film' over the course of a single day and it is one of the saddest, most heartfelt, but ultimately uplifting films I have seen in a very long time.

Like the surface details of Panahi's life, the film is about much more than is immediately apparent. There is censorship writ large - Iran is a country where filmmakers must have their scripts approved before proceeding to production, and even then the risks associated with personal expression are significant. At one point, Pinahi recounts the secret police raid that led to his arrest. But the overall tone of the piece is boldly humanist.

As he sets about the task of describing scenes from his unmade film script he becomes enthused, his passion spilling over as he maps out on the floor using yellow tape the outlines of the locations he had in his head. The unmade film about a lonely girl was intended to be shot entirely in one house - and Panahi has wonderful ideas for how the scenes might have played out, including camera angles and framing devices. However, he soon realises - the moment of revelation is captured perfectly, painfully on screen - if one could tell a film, why would one make a film? The quiet desperation of his plight is encapsulated in that phrase; this man, who feels compelled to tell stories on film has been barred from doing so.

Then Panahi starts to show the audience scenes from his previous films and describes how the truly cinematic moments in those films are the details that he could not have directed or planned, things that were contributed by the actors or the location.

I know that sounds like it is probably stifling and oppressive, but the political aspects are all subsumed in a rich, subtle human story - and, without wanting to downplay the tragedy of his situation in any way, by the time that Panahi is conversing with a young university student who is collecting the rubbish to help out his sister, one feels that there is hope.

The film ends with the epitaph: 'Dedicated to Iranian filmmakers'.

If it is playing near you, I highly recommend you check out This is Not a Film.


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