Notes From The Cinema

explorations through the world of film

Category: Documentary

We Iranians Like Life: Jafar Panahi’s ‘This Is Not A Film’

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:

For more information about Jafar Panahi or This Is Not A Film have a look at the links below:


Werner Herzog Smokes Again

Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, his latest documentary which explores capital punishment in Texas, picked up The Grierson Award for Best Documentary after its recent screening at this year’s London Film Festival.

To me it sounded like a film Errol Morris would have made, a topic he would have chosen to explore, so when I arrived at the Vue in Leicester Square I had to remind myself again that this was Herzog. It would be a European take, an outsider’s view on this well-trodden subject.

To our disappointment Herzog couldn’t attend the festival screening but in the message read on his behalf he told the audience that ‘this is the most intense film I have ever made’, that it drove him back to smoking cigarettes and that he and his editor could only work 5 hours a day, not their usual 8, when cutting the film.

Herzog’s way into the topic is through a 10 year–old triple homicide case in rural Texas, the outcome of a bungled attempt to steal a Camaro sports car. Visually he builds the film around landscapes and interviews – interviews with the two men convicted of the murder (only one is on death row), one victim’s daughter, another victim’s brother, and the family of one of the men in prison.

Herzog is in control (as always, interesting framing of his subjects) but the film is not always easy to follow. There is a slightly confusing reconstruction of the murder, and two interviews in the film whose connection to the story was not made clear. I elbowed my friend: Wait, who was that guy?

Sometimes the interviews feel long and include too many extraneous details that highlight the American bizarre at the expense of keeping the focus on the barbaric. The resulting effect is that the interviewees sometimes felt like caricatures. Like Errol Morris, my friend said, Herzog gives them just enough rope to hang themselves.

Another resulting and surprising effect was that several times during the film I had an instinct to defend America – not all of us have so many problems, to which my friend replied, but you are such easy targets.

Would Americans see this film differently? Will it seem too familiar – the mentality, the problems – unbearably so?

From the bizarre Into The Abyss occasionally swung to the boring.

But worth it, if only to hear the testimony of a man who during his tenure as the Captain of ‘Death House Team’ tied 125 people down onto the stretcher. Only after he assisted the execution of the first female in Texas – Karla Faye Tucker, who incidentally was also on death row after a car robbery went wrong – did the Captain have a breakdown and quit his job despite losing his pension. It was moving and reassuring to hear such an about-face.

Typically you hear Herzog’s voice asking his questions throughout the film.  It lends an authenticity that develops the audience’s trust and gives us something more, those moments of expression when the interviewee considers his question, collects their thoughts. But what’s not explicit and what I missed, was Herzog’s motivation to investigate the consequences of this particular murder, this constellation of victims. Although not in the film, Herzog talks here about what captivated him – the senselessness. But isn’t it always?

The day after the film I still saw the faces of the two men in prison. The one who smiled most and talked about a supportive family (but a family you never saw) was about to die. The other had his sentence commuted to life in prison after his father (also incarcerated) admitted to being a poor parent and pleaded for his son’s life. He was now expecting a baby.  Senseless, yes.  Arbitrary too.

Into The Abyss left me craving a film that explored why teenagers shoot and kill when their efforts to steal cars are thwarted. Why young adult men are just learning to read. Why sons are in the same jail as their fathers. Why men in rural Texas turn guns on themselves and die of heroin overdoses.  Why capital punishment exists and why it’s a spectator sport.

Even after Herzog’s exploration, the list of whys is still endless.

The Pirate Tapes

With the news of recent kidnappings along the Kenyan-Somali border I had high hopes for The Pirate Tapes (Directed by Matvei Zhivov, Roger Singh, Andrew Moniz, Rock Baijnauth). The synopsis of the documentary said we would follow Somali-Canadian Mohamed Ashareh as he infiltrated a pirate gang. This was the type of documentary that took us deep into an unbelievable world, brought us dangerously close to current affairs. I was ready for the film to be strictly observational and difficult to watch in every sense (lots of undercover footage filmed at night).

But when I arrived with a friend at the cinema 5 minutes after the film started I was surprised to find a nearly full house laughing. The Pirate Tapes seemed to fall into that category of social issue films that feel uncomfortable and inadequate being themselves. The filmmakers compensate by framing a serious issue with entertainment – in this case, self-deprecating narration, music, stylish fonts and graphics.

For me it didn’t work. Partly perhaps because I had unrealistic expectations but partly because there were two underdeveloped narrative strands to the film.  The ‘subjective’ one told of Mohamed’s mission to gain the trust of a pirate gang and the more ‘objective’ one was comprised of experts talking about the rise of piracy in Somali. Their view – as far as I could make out – was that it coincided with illegal fishing and toxic dumping. But I can’t be sure of understanding exactly what the filmmakers wanted me to because as soon as I settled down into a scene the filmmakers cut away to a new one.

I looked over at my friend.  He was asleep. In front of us a man began talking. His voice, though quiet, was uncontained. Heads turned around him and for a fleeting moment I felt enough frustration to tell him to stop. But I acknowledged the moment, let it pass, and felt relieved when he took the stage to speak as part of the post-film panel that I had said nothing.

Why didn’t the filmmakers stick to one strand? I had a sense that Mohamed’s role in the film, no doubt incredibly brave, failed for obvious reasons to yield enough visual material needed to tell his story. And so Mohamed’s strand was forced to focus on his almost comedic efforts to become trusted by the pirates and then after he was captured, on his efforts to find a way back to Canada alive.

No doubt there were striking images in the film – namely those showing the cavalier way in which guns were slung across bodies at all times of the day, in any social situation. And there were striking statistics too, contextualizing the amount of money pirates stood to earn compared to the wages of the average Somali. But despite this I left the cinema unsatisfied. As my friend said on the way out: Something was missing.

To read more about the film, and to watch a trailer as well as a short video on the history of piracy, visit the website:

My Reincarnation: Jennifer Fox’s New Documentary

‘I really wish I could see you,’ Jennifer Fox tells her audience more than once via Skype after the London premiere of her new film My Reincarnation [held at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, Sunday 4th September 2011] She is smiling on the big screen in front of us, perhaps from her kitchen table in New York, and we are all watching, which is something Jennifer has allowed us to do before when she turned the camera on herself in her previous film Flying: Confessions of A Free Woman.

I read between the lines. It’s the filmmaker’s curiosity of her audience, her desire to gauge our reactions but also her desire to fully engage. This intense desire to connect that drives Jennifer’s work is what I love most about it. She smiles and waits for a question, a comment, for us to find our nerve. Some of us are still drying our eyes.

I can never watch footage of Tibet without bursting into tears,’ my friend had whispered into my ear during a particularly moving homecoming scene. I cannot say I felt this way before but somehow on this night I knew exactly what she meant.

Jennifer’s new film My Reincarnation actually began over twenty years ago when she picked up her camera and started filming the Tibetan spiritual master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his family. At the time Jennifer was working as his private secretary, a job that granted her tremendous access. By her own admission she had no idea what would become of the footage and she wondered when the material took shape whether it could have appeal beyond a Buddhist audience.  But she sensed to keep filming, year after year.

Even when filming stopped the road was not easy.  Like many filmmakers – including myself – Jennifer needed money to finish and so she started a campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.  It was a huge success and after raising over 150,000 USD she is currently one of the site’s record-holders.

When the London audience recovers and the questions and comments roll in they are overwhelmingly positive. During the Q&A session Jennifer draws a parallel between meditation and filmmaking as both requiring awareness. The audience is rewarded by her presence (mental, not physical) in the tiny moments throughout the film where another filmmaker may have turned off the camera already satisfied that they got what they were looking for.

After twenty years of filming what emerges is the story of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his Italian son Yeshi who at birth is recognized as the reincarnation of a well-known spiritual master. During the course of the film we witness not only Yeshi’s changing relationship to his father but also the evolution of Yeshi’s relationship to himself.

Once again Jennifer has traveled to another world – specifically to a Tibetan master’s family in Italy – and brought back a film for all of us. My Reincarnation is about the journey home.  Not necessarily to a geographic place, but to one’s self.

For more information about the film visit the website.

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