When we watch the earliest projects committed to celluloid, the silent films and the five minute features of a train coming into a station, most modern viewers are unimpressed. They don’t understand that at the time, no one had ever seen such images. That the train pulling towards the screen made audiences scream and faint, that it was changing the world, that it was the first shots in a revolution. We laugh at TRON’s graphics today, for in the wake of James Cameron’s Avatar, they seem quaint and laughable, but at the time, that was cutting edge. Now that you can use an Xbox controller to send a drone to surgically annihilate your enemies, it’s difficult to appreciate the perspective of the first saber waving soldier charging into battle to suddenly get cut down by a flying chunk of metal and lay there dying thinking, “What the fuck was THAT?” It’s often the context of the film that creates the drama. I was criticized for my review of A Serbian Film because I wasn’t addressing the fact that the film was a metaphor for the current political culture of Serbia. Fair enough, but you don’t get flashcards and presentations before every film. I took it at face value. Such is the similar case with the documentary This Is Not A Film. On the surface, it’s just a quirky old man puttering around his house and bitching to his friend on camera. But taken in context, it’s fucking fascinating.
Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker, in the vein of Stan Brakhage or Jean-Luc Godard. In that, he’s lauded and accoladed and praised by critics and scholars, but most mainstream audiences are unaware of his influences or accolades. As the documentary opens, a camera sitting on a kitchen table picks him up as he eats breakfast and has an innocuous phone conversation. The first twenty minutes of the film continue in this manner: puttering around the house, listening to phone messages and talking with his lawyer. He invites his friend over, documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, so he can film him as he discourses about the film he was trying to make. The film slowly progresses from there, with Panahi getting frustrated with trying to verbally communicate his ideas instead of being able to use his cinematic tools. He shows clips from his own works on his TV, explaining what he was trying to convey, or what worked so well here and how he captured lightning in a bottle. There’s no real seemingly linear convention or even a concrete ending. So as a basic entertainment, it’s not going to appeal to most folks. Without knowing the purpose or the backstory, it’s just a nice Iranian homebody who’s pretty pissed he can’t make a movie.
And yet, it’s the context that makes this film remarkable. Panahi is actually awaiting the appeal on his recent censuring by the Iranian government. He and his family were arrested. For trying to make a film that did not receive approval from the Iranian regime, Panahi received a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year-ban - from making or directing films, writing screenplays, giving interviews to the foreign or Iranian press, or from leaving the country. And this isn’t an old case, this occurred in 2010. So the very fact that he is “the subject” of a “documentary” while awaiting sentencing is in and of itself the most punk rock rebellious fucking thing to happen since ever. He could be executed or imprisoned longer. It’s extremely dangerous. And yet, here’s Panahi, giving us a bit of insight without violating the regulations.
Even more startling is the actual context of the location. Panahi is on house arrest, so he’s confined to his rather luxurious and lovely apartment. His friends have to come to him, he can’t actually leave the apartment during any of the filmmaking, he can only watch TV or get reports on the censored internet access. As he’s giving his discourse to his friend, in the background, we hear gunshots and explosions and sirens. It’s subtle and gradual at first, but slowly the riot environment creeps its way into the narrative. He’s not just on house arrest, awaiting a potential six year sentence and the chokehold on his narrative voice, he’s in an active warzone. The last shot of the film is of the young maintenance man walking out to take the garbage to the dumpsters while a bonfire burns in the background, set by rioting youth.
We never learn this in the context of the film, but Panahi is still awaiting appeal and trial. Many prominent filmmakers and film critics and actors have come out in support of Panahi, but this has done nothing to alleviate the pressure on him. He’s won numerous awards at Cannes and the Berlin Film Festival for his works, which often spotlight the strictures against women in Iranian society. This is Not A Film had to be smuggled out of Iran and into France on a flashdrive hidden in a birthday cake so it could be screened specially at Cannes. As a film and a documentary, it’s interested if distracted. But the miracle of the film is that it was ever made at all, or that we can actually see it. The medium is the message, and when you take all the backstory into context, This is Not a Film is a startling piece of cinema.