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