Cinema - This is not a film

by a young, Iranian, female, undergraduate student*

Somewhere between avant-garde Experimentalism, Andy Warhols notion of the "anti-film" and your bog-standard documentary, falls Iranian director, Jafar Panahi’s, most explicit poke at his country’s regime. This is not a film, but a peep-hole into the life of one of Iran’s most renowned directors, as restlessness drives him to channel his repressed creativity through the resources available to him in the confines of his Tehran home. Is This is Not a Film the product of a has-been director’s boredom as he attempts to tackle the limitations of being under house arrest; or is it deserving of The Carosse D’or Prize it received at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival after it was smuggled out of the Islamic Republic?

From the very opening, it is anti-climactic, mundane, and a far cry from your conventional Hollywood movie. Our ex-director-protagonist enters the scope of the camera; stationed on the kitchen table, as he sits down to eat his breakfast. The notion of the quotidian; typical to Panahi’s films, infiltrates this 75-minute mise-en-scène: as we watch a seemingly anti-heroic figure feed a pet iguana, pace around the apartment, and refuse to look after the neighbour's dog, we become onlookers to what starts to resemble unedited Big Brother footage; and we thus begin to question the critical appraisal this non-film has received. The antithesis of gripping, This is Not a Film resembles a montage of background noises as Panahi mumbles and the phone rings. Banality reaches new heights when the cameraman and director resort to filming one another – an absurdist Waiting for Godot-esque scene, with the two men sat aimlessly passing time in their anticipation of a verdict. We start to wonder whether we lack the alternative, artsy mindset to comprehend the fuss surrounding this film that we have come to realise, is really not a film.

Poster designed by Dean Reeves

But is this not exactly the point? Panahi’s 75-minute whatever-you-want-to-call-it, is reality in all its rawness. Throughout, we are essentially waiting with Panahi to hear his fate, listening in on his phone call with his lawyer to learn that imprisonment is unavoidable. In the representation of the ordinary, in its very casualness, This is Not a Film most effectively unveils the plight of the common Iranian. Whether it is when the director restrains from engaging in much conversation over the phone, when the binman recounts the time the authorities raided the building, or when his friend tells him he was stopped for questioning on his way to Panahi’s house, it is all part of the far from dramatised reality that makes up the portrait of the repressed and totalitarian nation that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The lack of a plot not only undermines cinematic decorum, but also the expectations of the average cinema-goer. Panahi’s relentless wit must nonetheless be acknowledged and commended. The director makes sure not to breach the terms of his sentence, which includes a 20-year ban on film-making: so if this is not a film, what exactly is it? A profound expression of the effects of censorship, a political statement, perhaps – an explicit, yet humorously tacit critique of the regime which has transformed Panahi’s own home into both a prison and yet the only available setting for the outlet of his art. His passion becomes ever more evident as he attempts to enact the film, using tape to draw out the setting on his carpet, and detailing the angles at which the camera would come into play. We watch the director become the actor as he reads from the script of a film – centred on the story of a girl forced to stay at home and prevented from studying in her desired field at university – that his sentence forbids him from producing. Panahi puts on what initially comes across as a laughable attempt at a one-man show, only to eventually end in tangible frustration: in what is arguably the most poignant moment of this work, he asks "if films could simply be told, why would they be made?" But even throughout this scene, wit and distress are intertwined: the ironic parallels between his own situation and the tale of his protagonist are blatant and undeniable.

The fact that This is Not a Film was smuggled out in the ludicrous form of a USB stick hidden in a cake epitomises the tongue-in-cheek attitude that prevails in the work of the far from anti-heroic director. This is not a film tailor-made merely to suit a specific audience, to fit a certain genre of cinematic production. Rather, this is the remarkable Jafar Panahi satirically giving the finger to the authorities of the Iranian regime.

Special thanks to Dean Reeves for permitting the use of his work and preparing a customised version of his poster especially to HR&D.

This review was written by a young, Iranian, female, undergraduate student, who has chosen to remain anonymous.

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.


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