In 2010, Jafar Panahi, an icon of Iranian cinema in the past decade, was arrested from his home and later charged with “the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” In March 2011, Panahi challenged his court sentence with a documentary feature that later found its way to international film festivals and global recognition.
As part of its programme this year, the Red Zone arts festival -- hosted by the Culture Resource’s Spring Festival in Cairo -- will be screening Panahi’s This Is Not a Film on Sunday, 11 May in Downtown’s Falaki Theatre.
“It is important that the cameras stay on,” documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi’s friend and co-director, says in one scene as he prepares to leave at the end of a day's work on the project which, back then, was still vague even to them.
The project -- or "the effort", as referred to it in the end credits -- is indeed not a film: there is no screenplay, no actors, no crew, no special lighting, no music. There is only a director who faces a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, sitting in his apartment under house arrest, making calls as he wonders about the impending result of his appeal to court.
Yet, despite the stifling restrictions, Panahi finds a way around his confinement and, with Mirtahmasb's help, somehow emerges with this masterpiece of a non-film.
At first, This Is Not a Film seems like a mere account of a day in Panahi’s life under house arrest. The camera is fixed, filming the internationally acclaimed director going about the mundane tasks of daily life in his spacious Tehran apartment. He has breakfast, listens to the messages on his answering machine, feeds his daughter’s pet iguana, Igy, and prepares a cup of tea that he drinks while discussing the prospects of his case with his lawyer over the phone.
When Mirtahmasb -- whom Panahi telephones during the very first scene and calls over in secret -- arrives, Panahi reveals his plan. Since he is banned from directing, he wants Mirtahmasb to follow him around the house with the camera as he reads the script of his film recently rejected by authorities, never to be produced.
To help viewers envision the setting, Panahi uses duct tape to mark the spaces in which his film takes place, and starts reading. The protagonist is a girl forbidden by her parents from going to college. They lock her in the house and travel, while she – not unlike Panahi himself – is left behind to ponder her misfortune.
As he sits on the elaborately patterned carpet and recounts a scene, Panahi falters, almost breaking down in frustration. Bitterly, he asks, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”
What follows is one of the sincerest and most impassioned examinations of the concept of cinema ever captured on camera. Panahi replays sequences from some of his earlier pictures on DVD -- including Crimson Gold and The Circle -- and explains how, even with the filmmaker’s vision, the different elements of a film sometimes end up directing themselves. An improvised facial expression by one of the actors can transform a scene, and the location can sometimes convey a certain feeling without the need to resort to dialogue.
Yet that distinctive filmmaker, who had become a master at weaving the separate threads into beautiful motion pictures, finds himself reduced to acting out a screenplay in his living room in a desperate attempt to create. True to that desolate idea, parts of This Is Not a Film are sharply poignant, even heartbreaking.
Panahi lingers alone in his apartment on the occasion of the Persian New Year, while his wife and children are out visiting relatives and exchanging presents – he cannot even take part in that. When his lawyer tells him internal pressure could force the court to reconsider his sentence, he sardonically responds that if fellow Iranian filmmakers tried to take a stand, "they would be banned too". Talking to Mirtahmasb’s camera, he lists film after film that the government never allowed him to make, each for a different reason, and we begin to understand why the initial project, as Mirtahmasb mentions earlier, was titled Iranian Filmmakers Not Making Films.
This Is Not a Film, however, is never helpless. No grand speeches about freedom are made; there are no outbursts of rage or a direct renunciation of the Islamic Republic, but an air of defiance always finds its way in, subtly, elegantly.
Panahi cannot make films, yet he decides that this imposed state of inability is in itself worthy of being documented, and so the camera rolls. While a news report on television announces that the president has declared Fireworks Wednesday illegal because the occasion of the Persian New Year has "no religious grounds", people are nonetheless noticeably celebrating on the streets as evidenced by the background sound of firecrackers. From his balcony, Panahi even films the bursts of colour the crowds splash out across the sky using his iPhone.
The value of This Is Not a Film, which will no doubt prove timeless, lies not in that it was smuggled out of Iran and into France on a flash drive hidden inside a cake and screened at the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews, or that it has since been watched all around the world and proclaimed brilliant.
This Is Not a Film would have been equally magnificent had it never left the apartment where it was shot because its real significance lies in Panahi finding within him the resolve to turn a moment of weakness, in which he was suspended in complete legal and creative limbo, into a bona fide work of art that is raw, honest and -- despite everything -- free.
The inspiration for the title of Panahi’s and Mirtahmasb’s project comes from René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images -- the Belgian artist’s famous painting of a pipe declaring that it is, in fact, not a pipe. This Is Not a Film is not driven by surrealistic tendencies, though, the way Magritte’s work is; it is actually firmly grounded in reality. It may not be a film, yet it captures the essence of cinema as very few films manage to do. And, although born of oppression, it stands as a bold, resilient statement in defence of freedom.
Panahi’s sentence was upheld and, to this day, despite international outrage, the ban on his filmmaking has not been lifted. Yet, despite the apparent defeat, the day he made This Is Not a Film, Panahi triumphed.
Sunday, 11 May at 8pm
24 Falaki St, Downtown, Cairo