Not a Film is art of resistance
A O SCOTT
THE title This Is Not a Film nods in the direction of Rene Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, but at least at first glance, this new 75-minute work of cinema by Jafar Panahi has little in common with any sly Surrealist prank.
This video essay was recorded in Tehran, Iran, last year, as Panahi, one of the leading Iranian filmmakers of the last decade, was under a legal assault from his government that included the confiscation of his passport, the threat of a long prison sentence and an even longer ban on making movies.
Careful to obey the letter of that injunction – and thus exposing the preposterousness as well as the meanness of its spirit – Panahi did not write a screenplay or wield a full-size camera. A colleague, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (credited as co-director), comes to his apartment to shoot, and Panahi restricts his activities to talking, recording with his iPhone, commenting on some of his earlier films and reading aloud from existing scripts. So if this is not a film, it is, among other things, a statement of creative resistance in the face of tyranny and a document of intellectual freedom under political duress.
But that “among other things” brings us, in a way, back to Magritte, because while This Is Not a Film bristles with a topical, real-world urgency pointedly excluded from the Surrealist project, it is also a provocative, radical and at times surprisingly playful meditation on the nature of representation. Using modest, ready-to-hand techniques and a format that seems to emphasise the most banal, literal-minded, artless aspects of picture taking, Panahi has constructed a subtle, strange and haunting work of art.
Don’t tell the Iranian authorities, though by now they should be familiar with movies that explore the enigmatic qualities of everyday life while at the same time inviting ruminations on the ambiguities of cinema itself. In the 1990s and the early years of this century Iranian filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi’s erstwhile mentor, blended social inquiry with formal self-consciousness in a series of experiments that amounted to the invention of a new style.
The international eminence of Iranian cinema – the most recent manifestation of which is the Oscar given to Asghar Farhadi last Sunday for A Separation – is in large measure a recognition of this novel and fruitful way of mixing documentary, social realism and poetic insight.
Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More, Makhmalbaf’s Moment of Innocence and The Apple by his daughter Samira are in part about how the movie camera can estrange and intensify the reality it discloses to the viewer. Actual events in the world – the aftermath of an earthquake in a rural village, a violent encounter between a policeman and a student radical, a bizarre episode of family dysfunction – are not simply documented in these films but are also re-enacted, interpreted and argued about as the cameras roll. Cinema is both a transparent lens and a distorting mirror, and using it as a tool to examine the facts of human existence makes it impossible to take any of those facts for granted.
There is a philosophical headiness to these recursive, argumentative movies, an intellectual high that accompanies and sometimes magnifies their emotional impact. Though A Separation is not as formally self-conscious, turning as it does on competing views and after-the-fact reconstructions of a contested event, it works in a similar vein.
And so do Panahi’s earlier films, notably The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside, which add a vigorous dose of pointed and passionate social criticism.
His contribution to Iranian cinema in the last decade has been to bring matters of class, gender and social alienation into the foreground with tact as well as with anger.
In the wake of the contested elections of 2009 and their bloody aftermath, it is perhaps not surprising that the forces of reaction singled out Panahi for punishment, even though (or perhaps just because) they knew that persecuting him would raise an international outcry.
This Is Not a Film, smuggled out of Iran last year to be shown at Cannes and other international festivals, has done important work in keeping the rest of the world aware of the Iranian situation.
But if that were the primary reason to see it, Panahi’s unclassifiable intervention in the world’s collective imaginative life would be equivalent to a committee- written letter to The New York Review of Books. It is so much more than that, so much more than a simple act of protest against oppression, partly because it looks like quite a bit less.
What do you see? A middle-aged man puttering around a spacious, elegant apartment that might be the home of a cosmopolitan, middle-class intellectual anywhere in the world, full of books, art, high-end electronics and other nice things.
The man, whose family is visiting relatives, chats with his lawyer on the phone, tends to his daughter’s pet iguana and watches bits of some of the movies he made back when he was permitted to practice his profession. He sometimes lets his anxiety and fatigue show, but mostly he seems to regard his situation with stoicism and a measure of amusement. He is clearly more accustomed to observing and reflecting on the actions of others than to being the centre of the action.
And so he does both, turning a highly personal video diary into a charged and expansive historical narrative. There is no plot (it’s not a film, after all), but there is nonetheless an amazing twist at the end, followed by a quiet tremor of awe.
How did Panahi do this? I’m at a bit of a loss to explain, to tell you the truth, since my job is to review movies, and this, obviously, is something different: a masterpiece in a form that does not yet exist.