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This Is Not a Film

May 18, 2012
This Is Not a Film

These are heady times for Iranian films and Iranian filmmakers on the world stage, it seems. And, perhaps inevitably, the story of Iranian cinema is the story of Iranian censorship. Circumstance was made abroad to avoid the obvious impossibility of shooting a story about a lesbian relationship in Tehran; A Separation won the Academy Award for best foreign language film despite the constraints Iranian filmmakers must work within; and This Is Not a Film documents a day in the life of a censured director.

Jafar Panahi has offended the Powers That Be. His conviction — the charges are never made entirely clear to us, other than the fact that they are “not at all legal” and “100% political” — carry a sentence of six years of imprisonment and a twenty-year ban on any professional filmmaking activities, including directing, screenwriting, travel abroad, and even giving interviews. It’s not clear if he is under house arrest pending the results of his appeal, but this day finds Jafar at home while his wife and child travel to visit his mother’s house.

He putters around the spacious apartment, shooting himself idly as he eats breakfast, watches the news, and takes the occasional phone call on speaker, so we can hear. Talking with his attorney we learn that the appeal will likely lift the ban and cut the prison term short, but he will almost certainly be incarcerated for some period of time. As Jafar’s conviction is not really about the laws, the legal arguments for an appeal can only go so far.

Jafar is not entirely alone; he feeds the family’s pet iguana, Igi, for one. He is also visited for a time by his friend, documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who carries the camera as Jafar talks. Do some home videos of two friends hanging out for a day count as “a film”, in violation of Jafar’s ban? Maybe; maybe not. The certainly cut close enough that everyone in the credits other than Jafar and Mojtaba — which amounts to “thanks” — is listed as a series of ellipses.

The two also deal elliptically with the subject of censorship, never specifically talking about it as such. They discuss whether shooting some video on his cell phone could get Jafar in trouble, and he tries to describe the plot and some ideas he’d been working on for a script which the government had denied permission to produce — it isn’t clear if this script has something to do with his charges — but there’s nothing particularly subversive or polemical on screen.

In fact what comes across most clearly is the sheer frustration of a devoted artist being told he cannot produce his art. So driven is Jafar to make movies that he will record the streets below on his phone just to get some release. His attempts to describe his frustrated screenplay fall short, which he explains in what amounts to an embedded video essay attacking the auteur theory of filmmaking. To wit: if he was able to accurately describe a film — if he could even completely conceptualize it himself — what need would he have to get actors and scout locations and actually, you know, film it?

And it’s in this frustration that the most damning criticism of censorship comes across, and it has nothing to do with the Iranian government and its reasons: we are a species of storytellers, and the drive to tell each other stories, and in their telling to tell ourselves who we are, is at least as strong as any other human need for food or shelter or companionship. The evil of censorship isn’t about how the powerful entrench their power; it’s about how it dehumanizes those it afflicts.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail, if it applies.

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