Something Else: Jafar Panahi's 'This Is Not a Film'
In his Tehran apartment, the filmmaker Jafar Panahi sits down to breakfast with a video camera pointed at himself. For a man being tyrannized, he seems in decent spirits. His apartment, the camera records, is brightly lit and well appointed, his breakfast tactfully deluxe. Somewhere outside a muffled boom occurs. Then a siren. Panahi doesn't seem surprised or disturbed. He's focused, reflecting on his own situation.
For "making propaganda against the system," Panahi has been sentenced by Iranian authorities to six years in prison, and 20 without making more films. Under house arrest and awaiting the outcome of an appeal, he spends some time on the phone with a lawyer, then summons a colleague, cameraman Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, for assistance with the video diary already under way. This Is Not a Film is what they'll call the result, and that's true enough. It's merely an "effort," by which the prisoner of conscience testifies to his experience. Disarmingly, and rivetingly, his approach is not so much a matter of rebellious defiance as of creative problem-solving.
Stasis being the focus of its examination, the camera doesn't move much, and neither does the story. But in his sly way Panahi commands attention. He resorts to blocking out and reading from a pending script -- about a girl who can't go to art school because her parents have locked her in her room -- and even his spoken description of the opening shot is transfixing. Inevitably, though, ingrained circumspection gives way to frustration. "If we could tell a film, why make a film?" Panahi says, stepping gloomily out onto the balcony for a smoke and a moment alone. Later, perusing DVDs of his previous films reveals earlier precedents for Panahi's adaptiveness as a seeker of serendipity, but also makes clear how necessary freedom is to him.
In recent years, with minor variations, "This Is Not a Film" has been a movie title several times. As such it evokes the self-interrogating art prank of René Magritte's 1929 painting of a pipe, under which was written "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." The English title of that painting is The Treachery of Images. Sometimes it's translated as The Treason of Images, although that might sound a little dramatic to anyone but the Iranian authorities. Before Magritte, in 1772, Denis Diderot wrote a story called This Is Not a Story.
Panahi's project is nicely tempered by an awareness that everything radical also is cyclical. Accordingly his title seems by turns cheeky, despondent, and sincere. Good artists understand the usefulness of restriction, and This Is Not a Film draws much power from its maker's humility. A conviction to continue his work is not the same as a sense of entitlement. Of course there is that also basic satisfaction of a big FU -- the not-trivial moral victory of having out-maneuvered and humiliated a bully, without ever stooping. That Panahi maintains his dignity is the essence of the effort, and more than adequate cause to make it.
All the not-film lacks is a scene of its own epilogue: Reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake, it made it to France just in times for Cannes. Later, Mirtahmasb spent three months in prison for his participation. Panahi remains under house arrest, awaiting a ruling on his latest appeal.
This Is Not a Film opens Friday, April 6, 2012, at the SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit sffs.org.
More on Movies
The Do List | Mar 06, 2014
Cy Musiker and David Wiegand scout the Bay Area for things to do this coming weekend and turn up a flamenco legend, a mashup of Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, and much more!
Visual Arts | Mar 06, 2014
Ed Drew's tintype portraits of his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan evoke the timelessness of war. Now he's turning his lens on an organic garden project that's empowering at-risk youth. By Lori Halloran
The Bay Bridged | Mar 05, 2014
Listen to The Bay Bridged mix of bands playing the Bay Area in March 2014, including: Bart Davenport, Cellar Doors, Carsick Cars, Mirah, Perfect Pussy and more.
Art School | Mar 05, 2014
Draw a cartoon portrait of your favorite person or historical figure and enter to win a signed painting by Sirron Norris!
Theater Review | Mar 04, 2014
Z Space's jubilant world premiere musical squeezes all the juice out of every moment. By Sam Hurwitt
Eugenio Mira's thriller Grand Piano doesn't hit all of its notes perfectly, but it's daringly written — and ultimately compelling.
Wes Anderson's eighth film, set primarily in a 1930s hotel, is just as stylish, precise, and nostalgic as his past films — and far funnier. (Recommended)
Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis plays the singing and dancing moppet opposite Jamie Foxx in a new version of Annie. In the trailer, she assures us that the sun will still come out tomorrow.
Don't call this a "Wes Anderson film." No, with its mix of humor and darkness, the director's new movie is both familiar and quite different. Anderson and actor Ralph Fiennes talk about their process.
Also on KQED.org this week ...
Women's History Month
KQED proudly celebrates the richness and diversity of the greater San Francisco Bay Area by commemorating Women's History Month.
Where's the Rain?
KQED covers news about California's drought, offers water-saving tips, and more.