Monday, February 13, 2017

Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb | این فیلم نیست‎‎ (How to Tell a Film)

how to tell a film

by Douglas Messerli

Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (directors) این فیلم نیست‎‎ (This Is Not a Film) / 2011, USA 2012

For the last several years, because of his house arrest and his inability to make films, the film director Jafar Panahi has been creating works that “are not what they seem,” or directing films that subvert the genre and save him from the censors. This Is Not a Film is precisely that, not a film but a film about film, about how one might direct a film and how one might tell a film narrative without actually realizing it.
   Locked up in his comfortable Teheran apartment on a day his family members have traveled to celebrate the Iranian festival Chaharshanbe Suri, preceding New Year’s eve, Panahi turns on his camera to record, in documentary style, a day in his life, including his awakening and breakfast. Determined to find a way around his ban, Panahi calls up his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and asks his to take up the camera, while he begins in read and, through the use of masking tape and imagination, to realize a movie that he was planning, but can no longer make, about a young girl, much like him, who has been locked up in her own home because she has determined to attend the university. 
     The parallels between the locked-away girl and his personal condition are crucial, in that they convey the impossible frustration and desolation of a society closing individuals away from their destinies and creative endeavors. But almost as soon as he has begun to play out the scenario of a young girl locked away in her small room with the view only of a young boy who appears outside her window, but the director gives up, realizing that, of course, you cannot  “tell” a movie. As evidence he gives the example from one of his earlier films, showing a scene where an amateur actor suddenly behaves in a strange way that the director might never have imagined possible. A shot form yet another movie shows how a simple set design reveals much more about the character than he might ever have imagined.
      In short, the director shows us how film is not just about its narrative, the script, but about how actors, cinematographer, scenery director, and the others work together to transform what might have been imagined. Telling a movie is impossible. Or is it?
     Although billed as a sort of documentary, Panahi’s and Mirtahmasb’s film, pretending to be shot in a single day—the film as actually shot over a period of 4 days for a cost of around $4,000—the work incorporates a great many personal and political events which come together to make a far larger statement than they seem to represent. Panahi’s daughter’s pet lizard, Iggy, plays a large role and he roams the rather posh apartment, crawling up bookcases filled with books, and clawing his way behind them, casting a rather eerie presence which, clearly, is not unlike the Iranian officials. He refuses to eat his usual diet of lettuce and seems only happy when he is fed a few pieces of cheese, evidently a lizzard delicacy. As Panahi complains at one moment, “your claws, Iggy, are hurting me, get off me, you’re hurting me.” And the very presence of the lizard fills anyone who is not a lizard lover with the sense of reptilian danger.
     As usual of this Iranian holiday, people set off enormous fireworks—even though they have been recently banned. And the city, which we glimpse through the many apartment windows, seems to be entirely on fire. His phone mates and his visitor complain of not only the impossible traffic but seem to suggest the entire of Teheran has gone slightly mad. “Traffic is impossible.”

     And the final appearance of a garbage-collecting young man, an student in Art Research, substituting for his sister, brilliantly introduces us to another perspective in the Iranian underworld. This handsome young man, embarrassed for his appearance (he keeps asking if he can change his shirt) and the smell of the garbage he is collecting, recognizes the famous director immediately, and is stunned by Panahi’s interest of him, as the filmmaker accompanies him in the elevator, floor by floor, until he reaches the lobby as he makes his garbage-gathering rounds. 
      If nothing else, we can only hope for the future in the grace and comprehension of this young man, who, once they reach the lobby, advises Panahi to remain behind so that he will be safe. It’s clear the limits of reality are perceived by all.
     In the end, Panahi has found a way to “tell” his film visually, with amateur actors that do precisely what he has advertised, behave in way that you might not expect. This Is Not a Film is a totally understated work that profoundly makes its message clear through all the elements of cinema, while pretending, nonetheless, not to use them. It is, quite clearly, a radical expression of what it means to make movies in a society that cannot accept them, but yet having an audience desperate for their messages. Panahi put his move on a flash drive, which was sneaked out of Iran in a birthday cake. The movie was shown, as a surprise entry, in the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and later appeared at the New York Film Festival, demonstrating that the collapsed society cannot truly censor an imaginative mind.

Los Angeles, February 13, 2017

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