A day in the life of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, This Is Not A Film is a portrait of oppression’s grey daily grind, its stifling tedium. At the time of filming, Panahi’s under house arrest awaiting appeal on a six-year jail term and 20-year ban on making films. The film is set in his home, recording and reconstructing his daily movements. We see Panahi strive to maintain his spirits and sense of self in the face of crushing circumstances.
Panahi, along with Abbas Kiarostami, is part of the Iranian new wave school of cinema, and both are heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism; Panahi acknowledges Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief as ‘the most important film of his life.’ Of Iranian film, it’s largely only Panahi and Kiarostami’s translated films that are available in Australia. Kiarostami’s Taste of The Cherry is probably my favourite of these. I can’t remember its plot: all that comes to mind is a stark mountain landscape, a man walking around by himself, something being buried, a lump of sadness, and a soaring sense of beauty.
Like Kiarostami, Panahi tells small, humble stories about ordinary people, often women and children, who find themselves trapped in a practical and existential crisis. The cinematography is often rough and grainy, yet studied and beautiful. He uses amateur actors, and the focus is on the characters, depicted in a patient, tender but unsentimental way – you get a sense that Panahi is fascinated by human beings and their predicaments.
This Is Not A Film‘s credits describe it as an ‘effort’ by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and documentary maker Motjaba Mitahmasb, referring to the filmmaking ban. It appears to be partly fictionalised, as the scenes correlate with each other and there’s a symmetry between Panahi’s plight and that of the character in the film he wanted to make. Fiction construction probably helped to condense Panahi’s lived experience into 75 minutes.
It begins with Panahi slowly eating a typically simple Iranian breakfast: pita bread, jam, and butter, and fiddling on his phone. He is filming himself with a fixed camera. The apartment’s aesthetic and tasteful surrounds, with large mounted paintings and photographs, shelves of books, beautiful Persian rugs and cheerfully coloured flower pots, speak of wealth, cultivation, and refinement.
Panahi phones his friend Mirtahmasb, asking him to come over because Panahi has ‘an idea’. We get a sense of the ever-present threat here when Panahi tells Mirtahmasb he doesn’t want to say too much about his idea over the phone, and not to tell anyone he’s coming over.
Soon afterwards Panahi is on the phone again, this time to his lawyer. We can hear the woman apologetically telling him that because his crime is political, none of her legal arguments will work. In the absence of international or domestic pressure, Panahi’s sentence will either be confirmed or only slightly reduced.
Panahi tells her it’s unlikely Iranian filmmakers will risk standing up for him, and suggests, laughing darkly, that he should pack his bag and leave it by the door, in anticipation of a probable jail sentence. Then he abruptly ends the phone call and stares at the camera for a moment.
‘I must remove my cast and throw it away,’ he says at one point, speaking directly to the camera. He is comparing himself to a character in one of his early films, The Mirror, a little girl on a bus who rebelliously declares she ‘doesn’t want to be in the movie anymore’, throws off the plaster cast she’s wearing on her arm, and gets off the bus.
When Mirtahmasb arrives, Panahi tells us he’s going to evoke the film he wanted to make. He checks with Mirtahmasb: there’s nothing in the court ruling that stops him describing his films, is there? He explains that the film is about an Iranian girl in a lower-class conservative family. She wants to study liberal arts, but her parents won’t let her, and they lock her up in her room. The symmetry with Panahi’s own dilemma is obvious.
Panahi’s concentration is absolute as he uses tape to mark out the miniscule size of the girl’s room, and positions a chair to represent her small window. There is a boy, outside, staring at the window, he explains, and the girl develops a relationship with him. Panahi’s favourite moment in the film is when the girl’s sister visits him and advises the girl to go with the boy. But in the end, the boy turns out to be a secret agent.
Panahi later shows images of some of his other films, explaining how his amateur actors often drive the emotion of the film by themselves, and describing the use of setting to convey emotion. At one stage he pauses, frustrated at the futility of trying to convey an unmade film through pure description: ‘If we can tell a film, why not make one?’
In another scene, Panahi, checking the internet, comments ‘everything’s blocked.’ It’s a good metaphor for the predicament of someone living in such a maze-like regime, where there’s a barrier to everything you try to do. The level of control exerted by the state is sometimes ridiculous, if not funny: reading a government website, Panahi tells us, ‘It says here that we [the government] directed the Berlin Film Festival.’
In much of the second half of the film, Panahi takes the camera himself, accompanying the good-looking young trash collector on his rounds. The guy’s reaction to Panahi appears to be a combination of the delightfully warm Iranian hospitality and politeness, and genuine awe at being in the presence of the artist. It turns out that he’s also completing a Masters in Arts research, with very little chance of being able to find a job in his field.
This Is Not A Film may have been a poor strategic move, but perhaps Panahi felt that staying human required him to resist, and share his experience with the world. As Mirtahsab says to him at one stage, ‘What matters is that this is documented. It matters that the cameras stay on.’ It’s unnerving, heartbreaking really, to see someone with such creative vision be prevented from realising it. In a less brutish world, Panahi would be remembered as an artist, not a political cause.