Forbidden to write or direct any film for twenty years, forbidden to give interviews for twenty years, forbidden to travel abroad for twenty years, sentenced to six years in prison: these were the punishments that an Iranian court meted out to Jafar Panahi in December 2010 on the grounds that he had been plotting to commit cinematic “propaganda” [see “The Year in Movies,” January 24, 2011]. Since then, not much news of Panahi has seeped out of Tehran. I know that an appeals court upheld the full sentence in October 2011; and I know that sometime in March 2011, as Panahi awaited this ruling, he managed while under house arrest to make This Is Not a Film, an “effort” (as the closing titles categorize it) achieved in his apartment with a digital video camera, a cellphone camera and the help of the documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Some people, marooned, toss bottled messages into the waves. Panahi loaded This Is Not a Film onto a USB drive, which he contrived to have mailed to Paris by concealing it in a cake. The picture arrived in time to have its premiere at Cannes in May, after which it was shown at several other festivals, including New York and Toronto. Mirtahmasb was expected to attend the Toronto screening, but at the last moment he was denied permission to travel and soon after was arrested and banned from filmmaking, on charges that he had conspired to spy for the BBC.
The creators of This Is Not a Film remain out of circulation, but their work continues to make its way through the world. Curious moviegoers who (like Mirtahmasb) had to miss the festivals, and who don’t often find smuggled masterpieces in their baked goods, may want to know that This Is Not a Film is now going into theatrical release in the United States, beginning with a run in New York City at Film Forum (through March 13).
I label the work a masterpiece because I found the experience intricately engaging, intriguing, moving and sometimes droll, and because I don’t know what else to call it. “Documentary” won’t do. Although it’s an authentic record of Panahi in distress (he is almost the sole figure on screen) as well as a survey of his light-filled, comfortably furnished apartment (which he might enjoy, were he not confined to it), This Is Not a Film has the shape, rhythms and irresistible emotional current of a cunningly planned narrative.
The action unfolds from early morning through night on what appears to be a single day, which just happens to be the eve of the Persian New Year. It’s the day when people celebrate the coming of spring with fireworks and bonfires. By an unstated coincidence, it’s also the day of the events in Panahi’s first film as a director, The White Balloon. On one side of This Is Not a Film is the memory of a great beginning, which now goes unmentioned, as if it’s been lopped off from Panahi’s life; on the other side, the physical and spiritual renewal that is promised by the New Year festival, and that Panahi will be denied. The action of This Is Not a Film, though seemingly impromptu, takes place between these two symbolic absences, and upon inspection it includes very little that’s haphazard. You see a carefully timed series of telephone calls, two sequences of explicit playacting, a well-prepared lecture-demonstration on the art of directing and a couple of suspiciously opportune interruptions, by people who might be real passers-by but are more likely minor characters.
I think of an early incident in which Panahi, wanting to wrap up a conversation, signals not once but three times for Mirtahmasb to cut, and Mirtahmasb to the amusement of them both keeps shooting—pointing out (perhaps for the benefit of any government official who should see this footage) that he is not following orders because Panahi is not directing. It’s tempting, at this and many other moments, to abandon the category of documentary altogether and call This Is Not a Film a fiction: the title a transparent ruse, the structure a contrivance and the action (on more than one level) a deception.
And yet there are also moments when Panahi, speaking with a vehemence that seems entirely real, criticizes the footage recorded up to that point as “lies.” I take it that he means the material has been factual enough but is not yet truthful. I think our job as viewers is to perceive the truth that Panahi is aiming for in his deception—this notably quizzical act of defiance, which uses irony not as a well-defended pose but as the last weapon at hand—and understand the sense in which This Is Not a Film really is not a film.
The clues to this truth begin to emerge as Panahi lays out the premise of his “effort” with Mirtahmasb. He has asked his friend to visit him so they can record Panahi reading aloud one of his unproduced screenplays. It’s illegal for him to write or direct, he says, but presumably he can get away with acting out some existing material. With Mirtahmasb following, unseen, with the camera, Panahi goes into his living room and with masking tape marks off on his carpet the footprint of a set. Here, at the carpet’s edge, is the door to a house. The entrance hall runs along this band. These strips of tape represent stairs coming up from a living room. And at the top of the stairs, within this rectangle, is the bedroom of the film’s protagonist: a teenage girl, the daughter of a pious family in Isfahan, who has been forbidden by her parents to accept a place at the university in Tehran and so has been locked in her house.
Dressed in his black T-shirt and jeans, his 50-year-old face looking creased and tired, his right hand perpetually toying with his thick dark hair as with a set of worry beads, the filmmaker unjustly shut up in the box of his apartment begins busily taking the place of a character unjustly shut up in the box of masking tape. You reach the turning point of This Is Not a Film—it’s at approximately the halfway mark, in case you’re keeping track of the completely spontaneous structure—in a scene where the young woman he’s playing becomes angry and frustrated, and Panahi appears to pick up her agitation as if it’s contagious. He suddenly seems to struggle to contain himself. “If we could tell a film,” he finally asks, “why make a film?” and walks out of the living room.
What’s absent from the telling? As Panahi goes on to explain, using examples from his films Crimson Gold and The Circle, mere narration lacks the surprises, discoveries and adjustments to contingency that are, for him, the life of a film—those moments when all his planning collapses and the quirks of an actor, or the visual traits of a location, seem to take over the direction. This is the truth of what Panahi has lost because of being banned from filmmaking: his encounter with the real. And this is why This Is Not a Film truly is not a film, in his terms if not the regime’s: because nothing unplanned could have happened in it.
The best Panahi could do was pretend that unforeseen events had broken out—as they seem to do in the second half of This Is Not a Film. Amid the undramatic views of Panahi noodling on his laptop (the one on which, I assume, he edited This Is Not a Film) or talking at the kitchen table with Mirtahmasb, there is also a brief, comic visit from a neighbor’s yapping dog and an extended conversation with an unannounced young man, who has come to collect the garbage and is either a government snoop (Panahi seems suspicious of him) or else the super’s brother-in-law. These incidents, expected or not, don’t lead anywhere, because they can’t. Panahi is staying put. And yet they do carry you forward emotionally to the final shot—a view of darkness split by distant, unreachable light—which is profoundly sad but the most defiant moment of all.
I wish I could tell you there’s comfort to be had in This Is Not a Film, or resolution of any kind. Unfortunately, I find only intelligence, artistry, courage, ingenuity, the ties of friendship and a determination to persist. Also, there’s a pet iguana. He, too, is a creature shut up in an apartment, and at times, as the camera lingered on him scrambling over the furniture and across the books, I wondered if he was meant to be a figure of the caged filmmaker. I finally decided the answer was no. The iguana is what the rulers might like the filmmaker to be reduced to—and the truth is, they haven’t won. This is not Panahi.
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Kimi Takesue’s travelogue of Uganda, Where Are You Taking Me?, has been making its way slowly around the country since summer 2010 and is at last going to have a brief theatrical run in New York City, at Anthology Film Archives (beginning March 2). If you seek out the picture there (or on DVD, through Icarus Films), you will learn that it’s the result of a commission by the Rotterdam festival, which a few years ago chose a dozen international filmmakers to go to Africa for the first time and make records of their visits.
The possibility that these projects, despite good intentions, might devolve into yet more exercises in the exploration of the Dark Continent was not lost on Takesue, an American artist with a critical bent. Alert to the inherent imbalance in power between the Ugandans being photographed and the filmmaker who traffics in their images, and sensitive to the scarcity in the West of images from Uganda other than those used to support accounts of war, disease and poverty, Takesue decided to film only scenes of everyday life and present them without narration, explanatory texts or subtitles. There is no overarching structure to her film; and the only recurring motif is an occasional interplay between the subjects and the camera, culminating in a young man’s questioning Takesue about why she’s taking these images.
Frankly, I think Takesue worries too much. Curiosity about others was sure to be the main force attracting people to her film, and her own tastes and interests were bound to determine which aspects of Uganda were shown. Why not yield to the inevitable, then, and enjoy the spectacle? In the present case its pleasures are considerable.
Takesue was drawn to the market stalls in Kampala, the scooters and jitneys jamming the streets, the cavorting of children and the composure of grown-ups wearing their Sunday best. She also captured a lavish wedding, a competition for female weight-lifters, a flour mill in operation, a present-day nickelodeon (where an emcee provided simultaneous interpretation of a Bruce Lee movie) and a school group’s outing to the Entebbe zoo. The history of violence in Uganda emerged only implicitly, during a trip to a special school in the rural north. There many of the students are former child soldiers and other survivors of war.
I think I can be forgiven for wanting to find out about these young people, and Takesue can be excused for showing them to me. In fact, I’m grateful she brought me along for the ride, to see everyone and everything in Where Are You Taking Me?
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Manfred Kirchheimer (who is, I disclose, a friend) takes the history and practice of political art as his subject matter in the essay film Art Is…The Permanent Revolution. He ventures into the studios of Paul Marcus, Sigmund Abeles and Ann Chernow as they make political prints—a woodcut, an etching and a lithograph, respectively—to show the different processes and listen to the artists’ thoughts. At the same time, he provides a thematic survey of more than two centuries of political printmaking—by Goya, Daumier, Kollwitz, Dix, Picasso and about fifty-five others.
Kirchheimer’s history is sophisticated enough to accord honor to political printmakers—for the humane values they’ve expressed and the personal risks they’ve taken—without pretending that political art is the norm and without neglecting complicating issues such as audience and influence. What I like best about the film, though, is the way it reveals the personalities of the present-day artists, who are so much like their preferred mediums: Marcus, tough and direct; Abeles, meditative and nuanced; Chernow, fluid and expansive. Art Is…The Permanent Revolution is having its US theatrical premiere in New York City at Quad Cinemas, beginning March 2.