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.
If you want to just say Moe to the week’s wide releases (including the Farrelly Bros. attempt to recreate The Three Stooges with new actors in the iconic roles), here are some of the options outside (and, in come cases, inside) the multiplexes.
This is Not a Film is a protest of great power, right down to the title. Made clandestinely by Jafar Panahi while he was under house arrest, awaiting the decision of his appeal after he was sentenced to jail and a twenty-year suspension from filmmaking, Panahi and his co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, knew that their public defiance of the government could only hurt them. They made the film and smuggled it out as a protest. That this pointed commentary on the nature of this kind censorship is also a profound expression of art, creativity, and the drive to express oneself, makes it almost heartbreakingly profound. “Never mind the title,” advises Seattle Times film critic Tom Keogh. “The remarkable This Is Not a Film, an almost unclassifiable act of subtle defiance against an oppressive authority, is, in fact, very much a film.” More reviews here.
Cabin in the Woods, a deviously self-aware horror film that spoofs, deconstructs, and reconfigures decades of horror movie tropes, arrives in theaters after two years of limbo, thanks to the bankruptcy of MGM. It’s clearly a work from the mind of Joss Whedon, he of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and the upcoming Avengers movie, and his co-conspirator Drew Goddard, who directs and co-wrote the film, really nails the Whedon humor and modern take on cinematic mythmaking. They let their inner horror movie fans go wild, riffing in every “kids in the woods tormented by supernatural killers” but especially the “Evil Dead” movies. You have to love, or at least appreciate, the conventions of horror cinema over the last few decades to enjoy the film, but if you give yourself to it, it’s a blast. And it justifies every stupid decision made by every dumb teenager in every slasher movie every made. More reviews here.
John Zorn: Treatment for a Film in 15 Scenes is an anthology of four short avant-garde films written and scored by John Zorn and directed by four different filmmakers. It screens one time only, at 9pm on Saturday, April 14, at Grand Illusion.
Robert Horton will discuss film and its influences with Susie J. Lee, whose work is exhibited now at the Frye Art Museum, in the final event of the Magic Lantern series for the current season. Sunday, April 15 at 2pm. It’s free, but come early to get tickets, for these events often fill to capacity.