Wednesday 28 March 2012

The return of Jafar: "This Is Not a Film"

Outside, perhaps, Roman Polanski, no director in world cinema has better dramatised - or been given greater cause to dramatise - the processes of entrapment than the Iranian Jafar Panahi, working under the eyes and nose of one of the world's most oppressive regimes: consider the circumscribed lives of the women he depicted in his 2000 film The Circle, or the sorry fate of the pizza courier-turned-hapless robber in 2003's Crimson Gold. At the time of his international breakthrough with these tremendous works, Panahi surely couldn't have anticipated that he would eventually become his own subject - or that he wouldn't legally be permitted to shoot a single frame of the resultant film. This is Not a Film, reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake, finds the filmmaker under house arrest while waiting to hear the results of his appeal against a six-year prison sentence conferred upon him for "assembly of propaganda against the Islamic Republic", and the twenty-year ban on him writing, directing or leaving the country. (Western viewers might well wonder whether the Iranian authorities couldn't find directors more deserving of their cells - Michael Bay, perhaps, or McG.)

Billed as "an effort" by Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this 74-minute document feels like a throwback to the self-reflexive cinema with which the Iranian cinema came to prominence in the early 1990s, in films such as Close-Up and The Apple: an attempt to conjure up drama from the bare bones of reality. Yet it's also approachable as an account of how a prominent director living under house arrest might spend his days - in this case, looking after his neighbour's comically outsized iguana, watering his plants, fielding calls from his lawyer, and trying to get online, only to find certain websites have been filtered or blocked outright. Part of the film pays tribute to the enduring descriptive and imaginative powers of the director himself: as filmed by Mirtahmasb pottering around his well-appointed home (fans of Through the Keyhole will note the director's sizeable DVD collection), Panahi begins blocking and enacting scenes from an unfinished project about a young woman prevented from enrolling at university by ultra-conservative parents. (Again, director and subject converge.)

This behind-closed-doors shoot may be the most guerrilla form of filmmaking currently possible within Iran. Musing over his past projects, and how they landed him here, Panahi highlights earlier exemplars of independence: the child actress we see in a clip from his 1997 film The Mirror, who - in the middle of a take - threw off the plaster cast her character was wearing, and announced she didn't want to act any more, or conversely the lead in Crimson Gold, who for one scene came up with a particular gesture Panahi himself couldn't have directed him towards. Such moments suggest a treatise on the many ways a film can be directed and authored, while also highlighting the individual choices Panahi is no longer free to make. We get a sense of just how limited his existence has become from the scene where the arm of a crane swings tantalisingly close to the balcony of his apartment: if this were a fantasy or action film, our hero would surely vault the railings and be away, but - among the many films this is not - this is not a fantasy or action film.

Instead, Panahi has had to find smaller forms of transgression. Picking up a smartphone, he records himself in conversation with his co-director, in the process contriving the one truly complex camera set-up here, along with unexpected company and an escape of sorts for himself, not to mention this non-film's awesomely resonant final image. That old criticism - that a filmmaker has effectively done nothing more than turn in a home video - stands, in This is Not a Film, as an endorsement; as a statement of defiance, that it exists is enough. (As Mirtahmasb insists, "what matters is that it [the process] is documented.") Yet there's also plenty of evidence that Panahi's gifts for constructing an argument about what it is to live and work in modern Iran, and for furnishing such an argument with the appropriate visuals, haven't been diminished by his time in captivity: rarely can the sight of a grown man rolling around his dining room carpet, or taking the bins out, have assumed such a vast political charge.

This is Not a Film opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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