This Is Not Film

Jafar Panahi, the subject of "This Is Not a Film"

I currently teach a college course, “Mass Media and Popular Culture.”  One of the issues covered is that a totalitarian regime tells its people what to do, while a democracy will use the media to persuade the populace.  There are also cases in which a totalitarian regime will suppress media with which it does not agree.  This can also happen, with more subtlety, in a democracy.  I would be hard pressed to find a better demonstration of the tension between totalitarianism and mass media than the new documentary “This Is Not a Film” opening at Film Forum on February 29.

Jafar Panahi, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, has received a six-year prison sentence in addition to a twenty-year ban on making any films.  The reason: he supported the opposition party in Iran’s 2009 election.  He is accused of making propaganda against the state.

“This Is Not a Film” was made by Panahi and his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb at what I can only assume must have been great personal risk. In fact, according to the documentary’s press notes, “This Is Not a Film” had to be smuggled out of Iran in a cake in order to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

“This Is Not a Film,” has been made with the assumption that the audience knows something about Panahi’s situation, the Iranian government and culture, prior to seeing the film.   I hope to convey some of the project’s background information in this article.

A key statement in “This Is Not a Film,” which encapsulates the film’s main theme, describes its objective to be a depiction “behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films.”  The project, which the end credits describe as an “effort,” as opposed to a film, has been shot almost entirely in Panahi’s apartment documenting one day in his life.  The day he has chosen is known as “Fireworks Wednesday” a tradition frowned upon by the current Iranian government.  “Fireworks Wednesday” uses fireworks displays to symbolically represent the people’s defiance of the regime.

Set against the importance of “Fireworks Wednesday” Panahi appears to be under a self-imposed house arrest, I’m sure in part because he cannot be seen outside with a camera.  We watch Panahi eat breakfast.  He talks to his lawyer, on speaker phone, about the possibility of having his six-year sentence eliminated.  The lawyer explains that the best Panahi will receive is a reduced sentence.

By making “This Is Not a Film” Panahi is essentially poking his finger in the eye of the Islamic Republic that rules Iran.  The brilliance of this acclaimed filmmaker’s technique is that he has been able to continue to create within the limitations imposed upon him.  For example, some of “This Is Not a Film” was actually shot on Panahi’s cell phone.

Panahi discusses his directorial techniques, complete with clips from this films that he shows on his modern, wide screen TV.  Panahi describes, to Mirtahmasb, a film he wants to shoot from a script that has been rejected by the government.  We see Panahi actually mark out the dimensions of the film’s set with tape on the floor of his apartment.  The reasoning is that since he is not actually making the film, only describing it, he is not in violation of his 20-year ban.  Panahi, at one point, voices his frustration, “If we can act out a film, why make it?”

Panahi’s plight has received international awareness. Panahi expresses hope that protests by world artists will help his cause.  At the same time he does not want to put Iranian filmmakers at risk for supporting him.

As for the tension between Panahi and the current Iranian government, further research I have done indicates that Panahi has put himself in a legal limbo.  On the one hand he has the sentence and ban hanging over his head.  On the other hand the government fears the outcry that would occur if Panahi is actually sent to jail.

Clearly both Panahi and Mirtahmasb have taken great chances with their lives by making this project.  Another key statement made in “This Is Not a Film” is the analogy that when hair stylists have nothing to do they cut each other’s hair.  Similary, at one point, there is nothing left to shoot except for Panahi and Mirtahmasb to photograph each other as they talk, while “Fireworks Wednesday” rages outside unabated, making the point that cameras must always be left on to document.

Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street.  For more information visit http://www.filmforum.com.

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on February 26, 2012, in Documentary, Film Forum, New and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. If one were to base their convictions and opinions on the propagated talking points in the western media, and accept their delusional contextualization of the Iranian issue, one would think that the Iranian state is a menace and an existential threat to, not only the U.S. and Israel, but the entire world. If one was sufficiently convinced that Iran posed a direct threat to their security, in such a state of fear, one might even support a preemptive attack. This contextualization is so twisted and backwards that while laughable, is also extremely dangerous as it could possibly lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings.

    10 years ago, Brian Whitaker wrote in The Guardian that “One of the oldest tricks in the run-up to a war is to spread terrifying stories of things that the enemy may be about to do. Government officials plant these tales, journalists water them and the public, for the most part, swallow them.” This was, as we all know now, the method used to justify the murder of Iraqi civilians and the destruction of their nation by the Bush and Obama administrations. It was a pack of lies – weapons of Mass Destruction, ties with Al Qaeda etc. – destined to occupy Iraq, steal its wealth and keep it under control, regardless of “civilian casualties”

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