Director: Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Runtime: 75 minutes
I don’t think This Is Not a Film can be put into words. This is not something any professional or habitual critic is supposed to say — much less at the beginning of their review — but that’s the nature, weight, and impact of this particular work. It needs to be seen and it needs to be discussed — by those who love and consume art, and by anyone who believes in the staggering power a personal statement is capable of exuding.
This Is Not a Film can’t be fairly summarized in the most conventional of methods because it has no interest in being a conventional work. Yet I’m basically forced to categorize the thing by simply writing about it, and I can only take the multi-hyphenate route: this is a documentary, an artistic treatise, an experiment with the art of narrative filmmaking, a veiled political statement, and an act of defiance in the face of defeat.
Before we get into the here and why, allow me to reiterate the specifics. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Crimson Gold) was arrested in July of 2009 — amidst protests over the recent election — on charges stipulating that he acted in defiance of his country’s government. Soon released, but prevented from leaving the country, he was once again incarcerated in March of 2010, the explanation this time around being that he was working on a project, again, acting in defiance of Iran’s government. Though released a few months later on bail, he was, some seven months later, sentenced to six years in jail and given a 20-year ban on writing, directing, leaving his home country, or even granting interviews.
It’s from this struggle that Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb — fellow filmmaker and personal friend — decided to record an account of the former’s day-to-day life, all as he awaits news on a sentence and ekes out whatever possible plans for his new film. But this doesn’t begin to scratch Film‘s surface. For its brief 75-minute run, Panahi and Mirtahmasb take full advantage of an extraordinary opportunity — one that could only arise from the most dire of situations.
And though much of this direness is only submerged in the mundanity of Panahi’s everyday life — iguana interactions, inauspicious phone calls, clips from his old movies — there’s a certain danger lying at the picture’s core. Right from the title we know that This Is Not a Film carries a political subversiveness. The main subject isn’t coming right out and saying how evil, oppressive, and unforgiving his country is, but there’s this incredibly primal emotion built into something as simple as the opening, static scene of Panahi eating breakfast and speaking on the phone.
Soon, this scenario proves to be the jumping-off point for one of the most fascinating deconstructions of the documentary form I’ve ever seen. Panahi confesses, right to the camera, that everything he’s shot himself is only a facile representation of what he’s done; when Mirtahmasb (figuratively and literally) enters the picture and begins to take some control over this entire experiment, it becomes wholly evident that we’re watching something be crafted right before our eyes.
I can’t accurately describe these sensations, so try to consider moments wherein the two bicker about something as rudimentary as where a cut is made. I, as a viewer, am often comprehending when someone should cut — it’s often too late or too early for my taste — but how many times do I get to feel like I’m part of the process? How often does a movie leave any kind of impact, only because I have the chance to watch somebody record some given moment with a camera? There is little that captures the magic of films and filmmaking better than that sensation.
It’s not all formal elegance and self-reflexiveness, though. Panahi’s an incredible subject — in the span of one scene he can range from uninhibited to courteous to frustrated to defeated, and never not brilliant. His sole comfort (i.e., other than his pet iguana) in this period can be found by staging his next planned feature. This isn’t really a “set” — in fact, it’s no more than a living room with some lines of yellow duct tape designating a house’s layout — yet he treats it as something not unlike a cathedral with a certain remedial, nigh redemptive power.
Everything we’ve been through in the approximately hour-and-ten-minutes before the conclusion has been some kind of struggle, be it on levels as staggering as the end of a career or as minor as not wanting to, say, look after someone’s barking dog. It ends on the same note as Panahi’s own future: frightening uncertainty.
Consciously or unconsciously, everything has found its way working toward one final, haunting point that carries violence, class structure, and civil disobedience in a single image. When we cut to black on this shot and a resounding line of dialogue, I found myself with this feeling of weight. The kind that few films in any given year leave you with as you exit onto a bustling Manhattan sidewalk in the bright light of a sunny afternoon.
But that’s about as close as I can get to summing up Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s accomplishment — this is something you, both as film lover and defender of great art, need to see. It might not be a film, but I have the strong suspicion it’s still a masterpiece.
This Is Not a Film is now playing at New York City’s Film Forum.
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