This Is Not a Film, a documentary in the purest and least contrived sense, prefaces its quiet observations with a detailed list of the criminal charges facing its subject, distinguished filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Seen as a “vocal critic” of the Iranian government and opponent of orthodox values, the artist faces 6 years in prison and a 20-year ban from directing motion pictures and leaving the country, a verdict that would separate Panahi from his vocation and sever his ties to the global film community.
In an attempt to facilitate his creative impulses and forestall loneliness, Jafar and a contemporary, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, monitor a day of house arrest, alternating between handheld camera and iPhone, photographing the mundanity of domestic life. The shots are routinely stationary, utilizing packs of cigarettes or chairs as support, unobtrusively studying the maestro as he washes dishes, takes phone calls, eats meals and browses the internet. The world outside of his apartment is completely concealed, only inferred by the sound of faint explosions, each burst amplifying Panahi’s anxiety as he thrashes out his forthcoming appeal. Civil unrest in the street below and the guarded nature with which our protagonist speaks evince the paranoia and fear that walk hand in hand in a totalitarian state, symbolizing the far-reaching assault on the individual made by an unchecked theocracy.
As is customary for Iranian filmmakers, Panahi pulls back the curtain, candidly referencing his own on-screen artificiality and its relationship to his cinematic work with amateur performers. Communicating directly to the camera, Jafar draws parallels between the metaphorical mask he wears to hide his sorrow and the disguise worn by an actor as they create a character, fondly recalling the authenticity of a child thespian shedding her costume and storming off the set of The Mirror. Using his living room television as a reference point, Panahi expounds upon the personality imparted by untrained talent, crediting the spontaneity of location and instinct as the true source of cinematic inspiration.
Staging a read-through of an unfilmed script in the family room, Jafar and Mojtaba deliberate over lighting and saturation, permitting the process to inseminate the product. As they lay out the boundaries of the heroine’s bedroom with masking tape, the accused pours over the trail of rejected screenplays that led to his arrest, the lines on his face and weariness in his eyes exposing the sadness that his mouth dare not reveal. Resisting self-pity, Panahi joyfully paints his mise-en-scene and itemizes the progression of edits, the breadth of his vision evident from the specificity of his phrasing. His confidence wanes as he nears the final shot, a static image of a noose prepared for the neck of his despondent student, the restrictions of her gender and customs of her people too heavy a burden to bear.
The limitations of Jafar Panahi’s characters are his own and by documenting the commonplace, solely observing his day as it unfolds, he’s struck a bond between censored artist and persecuted proletariat. Using his camera as an instrument for civil disobedience, Panahi has taken the subtle aspersions of his fictional work to their zenith, risking his freedom to chastise despotism on a global scale.
This Is Not a Film (Palisades Tartan, 2011)
Written, Directed and Photographed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb