Like many an oppressive political regime before it, Iran has shown a horrifying effectiveness in marginalising its own artists. In 2010, a decade of increasing censorship and intimidation eventually came to a head for the Iranian New Wave great Jafar Panahi. He was arrested and branded an agitator against the state and a shameless propagator of anti-government propaganda, and was warned against his purported inflammatory criticism of Iran’s domestic policy impacting both within the country and in the international community.
Contrary to mounting outside pressures and the expectation of a more forgiving jury in his initial trial, Panahi was tragically handed a 20-year ban on filmmaking of any kind, and a six-year jail sentence. The court’s decision inspires righteous anger, and is the harshest possible punishment for a man who unquestionably was one of Iranian culture’s most incisive commentators, yet who always showed an unerring respect for public tastes and customs, if not institutional ones. By contrast Panahi’s former mentor Abba Kiarostami, for instance, has managed to evade the forces of national censorship by defecting to less confrontational digital documentary works like ABC Africa, and more recently, making films abroad in the national vernacular of their own indigenous art cinema, with the marvelous and puzzling Certified Copy and the forthcoming Like Someone in Love, set in Japan.
This is Not a Film is the first wisp of an artistic response to his virtual incarceration, but understanding it merely as a documentary account is severely limiting. More than any other contemporary national cinema, it is not enough to reductively classify features from the Iranian New Wave merely as works of contrived fiction, or incontestable examples of ‘direct cinema’. Whereas something like A Separation is clearly a more traditional piece of narrative storytelling, the vaunted Iranian New Wave films of Kiarostami, Samira Makhmalbaf and Panahi ask more rigorous questions about our natural distinction between ostensible fact or fiction- how the medium of film customarily asks us to accept contrivance as spontaneous, real ‘action’, even if much of their work actually does self-identify as a documentary. Although This is Not a Film gains more credence than Panahi’s other films in being grounded in the day-to-day circumstances of its creator’s predicament, we should be wary of pigeonholing it too abruptly.
Regardless of taxonomy, in a more immediate sense This is Nota Film takes its place in a lineage of some of the great incarceration literature. Faced with an atrocious turn of fate, jailed writers such as Boethius or Oscar Wilde have made a virtue of solitude and composed some of their most profound and urgent work. Panahi is a similarly free-flowing creative spirit, naturally impelled to make films, or record the life and world around him. And so with the most scant of resources – a digital camera, an iPhone, some masking tape, and the welcome contributions of his pet iguana Igi – he delivers his own proverbial Consolation of Philosophy, a tense staring match with Lady Fortune, an annotated virtual lecture and assessment of his past oeuvre, and a raised fist of solidarity to those upholding his struggle outside his balconied apartment-prison.
The Magritte-influenced title is almost a brusque, cheeky touch – as if stating plainly what it isn’t, and so crudely, is enough to circumvent the official terms of his filmmaking ban. And his credit as an actor in the film as opposed to the directing assignation attributed to Mojtaba Mirtahmasb is also part of his clandestine method of deflection. As the much-related story goes, This is Not a Film was only able to leave Iran loaded onto a USB stick at the centre of a cake – the film was greeted at last summer’s Cannes like a desperate message in a bottle – revitalising proof that such an important voice will not be silenced.
“Don’t go out there, Mr. Panahi, they’ll see you with the camera,” the part-time janitor introduced in the epilogue stresses as he’s accompanied down the building’s elevator with the director. After 75 minutes of his dispatch conceived with a disarming clarity, passion and dignity, keeping tabs on his appeal with a harried lawyer, movingly playing-out unrealised film scripts, and addressing the state of Iranian revolutionary culture in conversation with Mirtahmasb, Panahi is offered a rare glimpse of the outside streets, the atmosphere laden with an air of nervy unrest on the day of the Iranian New Year street celebrations. And in a studied, poetic touch, the final shot is of a raging street fire: obviously not staged, but selected in an artificial sense for direct dramatic impact. It is a potent symbol – redolent, perhaps, of the idea that voices like Panahi’s will not be silenced.