De­fi­ance of the realm

A di­rec­tor who’s not al­lowed to make films makes a great one any­way, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Review -

YES, IT IS. It ar­rives in the form of a dig­i­tal print. You watch it in a cinema. It fea­tures a mag­nif­i­cent per­for­mance by an iguana. How aw­ful it is to live in a world where Trans­form­ers: Dark of the Moon qual­i­fies as a movie and the lat­est des­per­ate dis­patch from Ja­far Panahi, sup­pressed Ira­nian au­teur, feels un­able to as­sert a sim­i­lar claim.

It hardly needs to be said that Panahi is play­ing games. Given the amount of time he now has on his hands, we can hardly blame him for in­dulging in a bit of self-ref­er­en­tial cin­e­matic jig­gery pok­ery. The di­rec­tor of Off­side and The Cir­cle – two key films in new Ira­nian cinema – was ar­rested in 2010, handed a six-year prison sen­tence and pro­hib­ited from di­rect­ing films or writ­ing screen­plays.

Cur­rently out on bail, Panahi could have taken the safe op­tion and re­mained silent. In­stead, he de­cided to make a non-film that, in its play­ful ob­sti­nacy, re­calls the work of Jean-luc Go­dard be­fore he went mad.

Its weird prove­nance alone de­mands that we pay at­ten­tion. This is, it is safe to say, the only film re­leased this year that was smug­gled from its coun­try of ori­gin in a cake.

This Is Not a Film be­gins with the di­rec­tor pot­ter­ing about his airy kitchen. He talks with his lawyer about the chances of his case be­ing dis­missed (slim, it seems). Af­ter en­joy­ing his break­fast, he even­tu­ally turns to ad­dress the cam­era.

It tran­spires that the ap­pa­ra­tus is be­ing op­er­ated by Mo­jtaba Mir­tah­masb, a doc­u­men­tarist who has him­self served time in jail, and that the two men have set out to test the boundaries of the sen­tence im­posed on Panahi. The game is de­li­ciously twisty, but ul­ti­mately very se­ri­ous in in­tent.

Even with­out a po­lit­i­cal sub­text, This Is Not a Film would func­tion as a very ef­fec­tive vis­ual es­say on what we mean by “film-mak­ing”. There is, af­ter all, ev­ery chance that you, the reader, have di­rected a movie in the past 24 hours. Check your smart­phone and see.

The core of the picture fea­tures a fairly brazen at­tempt to sub­vert the stric­ture. Panahi pro­duces a script con­cern­ing (sig­nif­i­cant, this) a young woman whose par­ents, des­per­ate to stop her at­tend­ing univer­sity, have for­bid­den her from leav­ing home. We see footage from a lo­ca­tion scout. Panahi tapes out an area to rep­re­sent the set and be­gins recit­ing the script. Is he now mak­ing a film? Is he mak­ing the film pro­posed in the script? Is he mak­ing a film about a man who can’t make the film pro­posed in the script?

This Is Not a Film sounds ap­pallingly dry and re­lent­lessly self-con­scious. Whereas films such as Off­side tended to­wards the nat­u­ral­is­tic, the cur­rent project has more in com­mon with tricksy post­mod­ern pieces such as Ab­bas Kiarostami’s Close-up.

The picture is, how­ever, rich with de­li­cious jokes and bizarre asides. Panahi’s con­ver­sa­tions with a pet iguana con­trib­ute lit­tle to the de­bate on se­man­tics. But the beast’s weirdly af­fec­tion­ate me­an­der­ings – he be­haves just like a pet cat – of­fer a wel­come out­break of un­com­pli­cated rep­til­ian slap­stick.

The best gags re­volve around Panahi’s cheeky at­tempts to strain the def­i­ni­tion of di­rect­ing. When he tells Mir­tah­masb where to point his cam­era, the doc­u­men­tarist ad­vises cau­tion. Then Panahi pro­duces an iphone and be­gins film­ing the film-maker. At such mo­ments, one imag­ines the Ira­nian mul­lahs tear­ing their hair out in con­fused de­spair. We are all film-mak­ers. One might as well ban a con­tem­po­rary hu­man be­ing from eat­ing or breath­ing.

No­body is likely to con­fuse This Is Not a Film with main­stream en­ter­tain­ment. But it is more fun than the vast ma­jor­ity of mul­ti­plex screen­savers. And it might do you (and him) some good.


1984 how are ya: nondi­rec­tor Ja­far Panahi non­acts in his own non-film

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