When talking to friends and colleagues about our favourite films of 2011 the Iranian film A Separation is almost always mentioned. I saw the film with a friend who was seeing it for the second time – it’s that good! – and afterwards we talked (argued?) about what we thought the film was really about.
But a few months later I was blown away by yet another Iranian film – this time Jafar Panahi’s documentary This is Not A Film. For its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival the film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick baked inside of a cake that was then shipped to Paris. I caught This Is Not A Film at the Frontline Club in Paddington on the first evening after the end of Daylight Savings Time and as I tried to find my bearings in a 15:45 dusk I noticed I wasn’t the only one carrying a coffee into the screening room.
Perhaps it was the reality of winter drawing in, or the subject of the film (the filmmaker Jafar Panahi in late December 2010 was sentenced to a six-year prison term plus a 20 year ban on making, directing or writing a film, talking to the Iranian or foreign media and leaving the country) but I was unsure if I would actually like This is Not A Film. Because of Panahi’s case I was there because I thought this was a film I ought to see, not necessarily enjoy.
But I was completely surprised. The emotional arc of this 75-minute film shot entirely in Panahi’s apartment in Tehran is astounding. We watch Panahi bounce between hopefulness and despair, the fluctuations in his mood laid bare so we can begin to understand the impact this sentence and the waiting for it to begin is having on his psyche. At times it felt like I was witnessing the compressed stages of grieving.
Yet artists are always at work so naturally Panahi finds a way around the fine print of his situation by inviting a friend over to ‘direct’ This Is Not A Film. When Panahi instinctively calls ‘cut’ in one scene, his filmmaker friend scolds: ‘You are not directing. It’s directing. Directing is an offence!’.
What adds another layer to This Is Not A Film is the way the outside world wheedles its way inside Panahi’s apartment and the humour that ensues – first there’s the arrival of his friend, then later a food delivery, later still a neighbour who tries to convince Panahi to babysit her dog Micky while she enjoys the New Year’s fireworks, and finally Panahi is disturbed by a young man collecting the rubbish who warns Panahi, after he follows the young man to the ground floor, that he had better stay inside.
When the credits roll there are cleverly no names but Jafar Panahi dedicates the film to all Iranian filmmakers.
At The Frontline Club the film was presented by a friend of Panahi’s who told us that Panahi was aware of and grateful for the screening in London and that at the moment Panahi was simply waiting for the knock at his door. She also said that his friends, family (not to mention members of the film community around the world) are continuing to fight Panahi’s case and that they would not give up because in spite of it all, We Iranians like life.
This Is Not A Film is being distributed now in the US and the UK by Palisades Tartan who you can contact to find out where and when you can see this film and spread the word about the situation of Jafar Panahi: http://www.palisadestartan.com/
For more information about Jafar Panahi or This Is Not A Film have a look at the links below: