This is Not a Film 13/05/16 2:51
For the past 25 years, Panahi has made some of his country's best films, with bold narratives that examine controversial aspects of Iranian society: films such as The Circle, Crimson Gold, and Offside, all of which I have reviewed on this program, and which deal with issues of class, religion, and the restricted role of women. The increasingly conservative, theocratic government of Iran has disapproved of Panahi's films, and in 2010 it placed him under house arrest and ruled that he was forbidden to direct any films for 20 years. For an artist whose lifeblood is cinema, this had almost the emotional impact of a death sentence.
So, Panahi enlisted a friend, Mojtabah Mirtahmasb, to document an informal exploration of what a film really is, and why he feels compelled to make them. We see Panahi isolated in his Tehran apartment, talking to his lawyer and other friends on the phone about his case and the chances of getting a reprieve. He attempts to describe an idea for a future project using his living room as an abstract space representing a set, outlining the story, the projected characters and scenes, but he has to give up this sincere effort to reproduce his vision in the mind of the viewer—frustrated he says, "If this method could work, why even make a film?" He then shows us clips from previous films on his DVD player to show how spontaneous elements during a shoot are essential to the process, especially unexpected natural reactions from actors, in his case often nonprofessional, to the dramatic situations that Panahi sets up.
Miraculously, circumstances come together that prove his point in the context of the very film (or non-film, as he's forced to call it) that we're watching. On the Persian New Year's Eve, with fireworks going off outside, a casual conversation with the apartment complex's trash collector, a student working part-time, reflects everything that the director believes about the interaction between the artist and his environment. The subtle contrast between the words of the frank young man and the blinkered censorship hovering over Panahi is a perfect expression of the director's method and the larger themes regarding Iranian society that he explores.
Those familiar with this program know that I sometimes can't cover all the films I'd like while they're playing. This particular film played in Tucson for a week last year before vanishing, and now, thankfully, it's on DVD. The simplicity of This is Not a Film can be deceiving. With a clarity and grace that have few parallels in movies today, this film turns censorship itself into a breathtaking, profound work of art.