Sunday, February 2, 2014

This is not a film review.

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

But if Jafar Panahi's 2011 documentary that he smuggled out of Iran in a cake is not a film, then do I really have to review it?


Midway through the sort-of documentary, sort-of document This is Not a Film, house-arrested Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has a crisis about the impossibility of making a movie without actors, without sets, without costumes, without freedom. For some house-arrested filmmakers, this crisis may arisen earlier. For a determined S.O.B. like Panahi, however, it comes only after he's tried to stage the opening scene of his most recent script by marking out a teenage girl's bedroom in masking tape on his own living room floor.

After he has been describing what happens in this scene for about five minutes, he loses his train of thought, then just stops speaking altogether. He utters a few solemn words about the futility of his situation before walking out of the room.

This sequence -- more than any other in the "film," most of whose scenes involve Panahi kicking around his house and interacting with his iguana -- sets the rules for how we, as future viewers, should judge the experience we are witnessing. He has already told us that it is not a film, that it can't be a film, because film is a language of showing, not telling. (We must pause to acknowledge that the title is not merely literal, but also a cheeky preemptive strike against a government that has prevented him from making films.) Panahi starts by conceding that if he just reads his most recent script to us, we will be bored to tears, so he knows he has to do something more than that. Unfortunately, the language Panahi speaks has so been stripped of him, that we are bored to tears anyway, despite his heroic efforts to bring us a film that he has been banned from making for the next 20 years.

A critic reviewing Panahi's non-film is then tasked with having to judge it using criteria that were designed to judge actual films, at the same time acknowledging its function and its importance as a document of a creative talent screaming from behind the muffle of censorship. We are meant to feel Panahi's frustration over, and imprisonment within, his limitations, and asked to accept this as the entirety of our takeaway from the experience. Unfortunately, that ingrained critical checklist prevents some of us -- this critic included -- from finding Panahi's exercise in non-filmmaking truly sublime.

Although he's been reduced to telling rather than showing, to Panahi's credit, this does not mean he has entirely surrendered to awkward exposition. As a matter of fact, the way Panahi parcels out information about his situation -- through phone calls with attorneys and oblique references to the incident in which he was arrested -- gives a steadily clearer picture of why he's stuck in this house awaiting a prison sentence of possibly as long as six years, in addition to the punishments he's feeling more acutely: a 20-year ban on directing films, writing scripts and being interviewed. He's been muzzled by a government that approves the making of movies only under certain government-friendly circumstances. (I'll need to read up separately on how Asghar Farhadi received approval for A Separation.) Having been in these circumstances for several months, and looking into the abyss of total artistic inertia, Panahi decides to adhere to the letter of his ban rather than its spirit, and enlists the help of Iranian documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to come over and help him shoot ... something.

I suppose I expected "something" to be a little more profound. In a Hollywood treatment of Panahi's story, the director would become MacGyver, building convincing sets out of toothpicks and actually turning his screenplay into something dramatically captivating. All the while he'd evade the prying eyes of government soldiers, forever on the verge of the discovery that would kill the project and send him to prison for the rest of his life.

But this isn't Hollywood, and surely, it never was. Reflecting even on films he was able to make, Panahi discusses how most of them had to take place outside, on the street, because that was the only kind the government would approve. Even when Panahi was allowed to work, he was having to smuggle any transgressive ideas past the censors, burying them so deeply in the subtext of his films that they may have ceased to be there at all.

Now, without even the limited means once allowed him by the government, Panahi truly doesn't have any tricks up his sleeve but to make a film that really is none at all. Having suffered through a nearly unendurable final scene in which Panahi interviews a fill-in janitor as he stops at each floor of Panahi's building to pick up trash, I now think this sequence may have been unbearable on purpose. With This is Not a Film, Panahi doesn't want to show us that he can beat censorship. He wants to show us that censorship can beat him.

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