Friday, March 9, 2012

This Is Not a Film

In watching Jafar Panahi's muckraking and illegal day in the life Iranian documentary This Is Not a Film, there's an avid and tense tingling sense of an unjust world and wasted potential.  Without the backstory however, many might not see the fuss, for this isn't quite a film, but a testament to one's passion to their craft.  Panahi is one of the most prominent Iranian filmmakers of all time-- his film The Circle (2000) is perhaps his most respected; an impassioned portrait of women living and struggling in contemporary Iran (the film won the top prize at the 2000 Venice Film Festival.)  He was imprisoned in 2010, sentenced to six years in jail and barred from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews, or leaving Iran for twenty years.  What's developed is a ripe conversation of political calculations and the purity of filmmaking, as well as the artistry of one gifted man.  That struggle and context give This Is Not a Film such a substantial heft, and a purity of joyous refrain that it exists at all, that while minutia at times drags and stalls, it's hard to reject.

Shot with a handheld camera (as well an iPhone), Panahi and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb chronicle a day in the life of the banned filmmaker while stuck in his apartment on house arrest.  The antsy, cabin fever trappings are apparent from the start as Panahi putters around the apartment discussing his past work, his failed projects and latest screenplay he's barred from attempting.  There's a heartbreaking sadness to his anguish, joined with the drudgery of day-to-day nonsense (which includes earnest phone calls in vein to his lawyers about this court appeals and random tenderness with his pet iguana.)  What's striking is the lack of sermonizing Panahi summons-- there's seeming little spark of fight the system rabble-rousing on display.  This nonchalance may strike as hurtful to the modest film with hopeful intentions of rise-up activism, but also perhaps might just be the point-- let his films speak for him, and let this artist do what it's evident he was born to do.

While the complex themes of shady politics in an unstable region of the world, censorship and the sharing of one mans art are plenty to stand up for, this is still not quite a film.  The before and after complexity of Panahi's story are far more compelling-- for instance this film exists at all because of a flash drive that has hidden and smuggled out of Iran in a birthday cake on it's way to make a special appearance at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival-- and without that context, the narrative inside This Is Not a Film feels inordinately humdrum and unsure of itself.  B

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