I met Iranian director Jafar Panahi back in 1996, shortly before his debut feature film “The White Balloon” picked up the Gold Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival — one of many prizes that film garnered. My interview has been lost to the sands of time (hard to believe, but there was a time when everything wasn’t archived on the Net) but I still recall my conversation with the soft-spoken director, and asking him about making films in a country with state censorship.
Panahi was diplomatic, but pointed out how censorship was also the mother of invention, that the inability to state something directly led to the poetics of saying it indirectly, a subtlety that Western cinema had perhaps lost along the way to total freedom of expression.
Hardly the words of a fire-breathing revolutionary, and I wrote at the time that Panahi’s humanist look at Tehran through a child’s eyes was an attempt to deliberately depoliticize Iran’s depiction in cinema. I have rarely been more wrong in my assessment of a filmmaker; by his third film, “The Circle” (2000), which dealt with the treatment of women in Iran and the state’s ability to jail them on the flimsiest of morality charges, it was clear that Pahani was walking on the edge; “The Circle” was banned in Iran, as were all his subsequent works.
Like many Iranian filmmakers — and, indeed, most Iranians with a head on their shoulders — Panahi became an active supporter of 2009’s Green Revolution, that precursor to the Arab Spring that was crushed brutally by the thugs of dubiously elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and unelected Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This was a time when women would take birth-control pills before attending prodemocracy demonstrations, knowing full well the likelihood of being raped if picked up by the police or the Basij militia.
Panahi was arrested once after visiting the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan — a young musician shot dead by the Basij — and a year later, his home was raided by the police. He and his friend, director Mohammad Rasoulof, were jailed on spurious charges, and eventually sentenced to six years in prison, along with a 20-year ban on making films, writing scripts or giving interviews.
“This is Not a Film” is the work Panahi shot while living under house arrest in his Tehran apartment as the trial played out. Smuggled out of the country on a USB memory stick hidden inside a cake, it played at 2011’s Cannes Film Festival and galvanized support for the embattled director, although not enough to overturn his conviction. While more of a video diary than a film, it is a bold gesture, and one in which he proves — along with China’s Ai Weiwei and Russia’s Pussy Riot — that artists can be extremely stubborn people when it comes to their right of self-expression.
Panahi putters about his flat, talks on the phone with his lawyer, feeds his daughter’s huge pet iguana and generally looks about as frustrated as you’d expect someone in forced retirement to be. He enlists a friend to video him reading his last screenplay, the film that he will now never make, but halfway through gives up in despair, asking, “If we could tell a film, then why make one?” The most interesting section follows, as Panahi goes through images from his earlier films “The Mirror” and “Crimson Gold,” explaining the little details, the magic that happens on set and that you can never anticipate until you actually shoot.
Panahi tires of being filmed, and starts to shoot the fireworks above the city — launched in defiance of a government ban due to their “nonreligious” nature — on his cell-phone camera. Is shooting the sky on your phone a “film,” and hence also a crime? Well, look at the death of Agha-Soltan, the enduring symbol of the Ahmadinejad regime’s brutality that was shot on a cell phone and went viral on YouTube, before the Iranian firewall blocked all access to it. The recording of an image is almost as basic a human skill as seeing today; yet the ability to share what we see, as we see it, is increasingly viewed as a threat.
This is the central irony contained in “This is Not a Film”: It’s the Iranian state that is actively constructing a work of fiction, a mass illusion, where women can be banned from attending university or soccer games or even be stoned to death for adultery, but making a film that depicts that reality is a thought crime punished with jail. Like the neorealists, Panahi has always viewed film as ideally a reflection of society — he even titled his second film, “The Mirror” — and when his world was reduced to four walls, that’s what he wound up showing us.