I don’t believe that we in the West can truly comprehend the magnitude of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s courage and accomplishments as a filmmaker since he was arrested in 2010. Prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” he was officially sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden from making films for twenty years. The government has kept the sentence hanging over his head as a form of intimidation. They must be stymied by an artist who refuses to be intimidated.
Panahi’s response began with the defiantly-titled This is Not a Film (2011), which he shot on a friend’s video camera and his own camera phone and smuggled out of Iran in a thumb drive hidden in a cake (call it a cinematic jail break). Then he proceeded to make two more films, which have played around the world.
This is Not a Film (Palisades Tartan) is one of the bravest films of recent memory. While Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was under house arrest awaiting appeal — he had been prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden from making films for 20 years — he used a friend’s video camera and his own camera phone to make this production.
This is not a conventional film by any means. It’s something between a diary of his house arrest, a video sketchbook for a film he’s unable to make, and a cinematic essay on his position as an artist denied the right to make art and a citizen suppressed by a government who doesn’t like what he says about his country. It’s also a lively engagement with the creative impulse where, like most every film in Panahi’s career, the border between fiction and non-fiction is indistinct.
There’s a tremendous power under the simple-looking surface. Panahi is on camera for the entire film, which was shot by friend and collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, talking with friends on the phone about his legal situation, addressing the audience to discuss the film he’d like to make but can’t, looking back on his previous films (which he pops into a DVD player) to discuss the nature of filmmaking. But as he sketches out ideas for a film he’s unable to make, the frustration breaks through: telling a film is not making a film. And he clearly is not making a film because, of course, he’s forbidden to. Therefore this is not a film.
This is Not a Film is a true act of courage. Panahi made it clandestinely and had smuggled it out of the country in a thumb drive hidden in a cake (call it a cinematic jail break) to show at the Cannes Film Festival, essentially trading any hope of leniency in his appeal to get his statement to the world. It’s not about his suffering, mind you, for he lives well in his apartment. It’s about censorship and intimidation and making your voice heard in spite of it. It is political art in the very best sense, a creative piece of non-filmmaking that defies expectations of documentary, a personal rumination of the necessity of art and the responsibility of an artist in the face of censorship, and a creative act from an artist forbidden to create.
It certainly isn’t a commercial film, even by arthouse standards, and it played very few engagements outside the film festival circuit. This DVD release may be the first opportunity for many folks to see this humble yet defiant statement.
Iranian with English subtitles. The DVD features commentary by Iranian-born film critic and documentary filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami and a 9-minute excerpt from a 2008 interview with Panahi
Ministry of Fear (Criterion), a conspiratorial wartime thriller from 1943, presents Fritz Lang directing a Hitchcockian screenplay, but the sensibility is all Lang. Ray Milland is the wrong man here, recently released from a mental asylum (he was sentenced for the mercy killing of his dying wife) and immediately plunged into the middle of a Nazi spy ring in Britain. Milland emerges from his exile back to the social world with an eagerness to connect. Enticed by the crowds and the energy of a village fair, a charity fundraiser for war widows and orphans, he plays along with the fortune teller and the cake raffle with a good-natured humor, oblivious to the forces of darkness circling around him. He’s assaulted by a blind man who isn’t blind, barely survives a German bombing raid in an otherwise peaceful country meadow, and is framed for a murder at a séance crowded with suspicious characters. Lang constantly lays land mines in seemingly unthreatening locations.
According to a report from the Associated Press, Iranian authorities have released Jafar Panahi. He’s been freed on $200,000 bail, but his troubles may not be over. According to the report, the indictment (which is still sealed; the “crimes” he’s been accused of have still not been made public) will be sent up to a revolutionary court for future action. It seems clear, however that the pressure put on the government through petitions and, especially, the outspoken comments of Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche from their platform at the Cannes Film Festival was a significant factor in this measured victory.
UPDATE May 19: Jafar Panahi’s letter to Abbas Baktiari, director of the Pouya cultural center, confirms that he is on a hunger strike and explains the conditions of his treatment and the reasons for the action. Read the letter at La Regle du Jeu here.
May 18: At the press conference for the premiere of his new film at Cannes, Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami used his platform to discuss the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and the Iranian government’s treatment of all filmmakers, according to a report on indieWIRE.
The occasion also brought conflicting reports on Panahi’s situation. Kiarostami reported that he had received word that the filmmaker may be freed today. “I got a message from Jafar’s wife and we’re hoping he might be freed today and, of course, if that does happen later today, that will be good news and hopefully I’ll be able to give that good news.” However, conflicting reports that Panahi’s sentence had, in fact, been extended by two months and that he was planning a hunger strike, also surfaced at the press conference.
Panahi had beenÂ invited to serve on the jury for this years Cannes Film Festival before he was arrested and imprisoned for unspecified crimes.
In March 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside) was arrested and locked up in Tehran’s Evin prison, initially for “unspecified crimes,” then on charges directly related to his work. Though Mr. Panahi’s award-winning films have brought credit to his native land, his countrymen have been banned from seeing his work during the last ten years. Worse yet, this outstanding director has essentially been prevented from making movies in recent years. Panahi suffers from a heart condition and there are serious concerns about his health.
Filmmakers, film festivals and film critics all over the world have protested the incarceration of Mr. Panahi, a respected artist who should enjoy the freedom to make and screen movies for the pleasure and admiration of audiences everywhere.
As members of the film community in Seattle, Washington, we the undersigneÂ deplore the detention of Jafar Panahi and strongly urge the government of Iran to release him immediately.
Tim Appelo, critic
Sean Axmaker, critic
Justine Barda, programmer, SIFF
Sheila Benson, critic
James Bernhard, teacher
Yomi Braester, faculty, University of Washington
Peggy Case, producer
Robert Cumbow, author
Ryan Davis, NWFilm Forum
Robinson Devor, filmmaker
Jim Emerson, critic
Janice Findley, filmmaker
Ted Fry, critic
Claudia Gorbman, faculty, University of Washington
Kevin Hamedini, filmmaker
John Hartl, critic
Ruth Hayler, film buyer, Landmark Theater
Robin Held, curator, Frye Museum
Nick Henderson, graphic artist
Robert Horton, critic
Wayne Karrfalt, writer
Tom Keogh, critic
Richard Jameson, critic
Moira Macdonald, critic
Kathleen Murphy, critic
Paula Nechak, critic
Bruce Reid, writer
Adam Sekuler, NWFilm Forum
Jeff Shannon, critic
Kevin Shannon, manager, Scarecrow Video
Lynn Shelton, filmmaker
Mark Steiner, buyer, Scarecrow Video
Tom Tangney, KIRO radio personality
Andrew Wright, critic