Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

A man puts tape on the floor to indicate a floor plan. He addresses the cameraman and describes his planned film exhaustively: the location — here’s the bedroom, here’s the window, here’s the alley — the characters, the blocking, how long shots will last, the dialogue, and more. After ten minutes of talking non-stop, he suddenly goes silent. Something seems to be bothering him. After a quiet moment, he intones, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” Then he walks away to be alone.

The man is Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker whose films have criticized Iranian society, particularly the marginalization of women. Consequently, in 2010 he was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking for propaganda against the government. As Panahi sat in his apartment, waiting for the response to an appeal, he made a film about his experience. It was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden in a cake. Its title was
This Is Not a Film. It escaped. Panahi stayed.

What the filmmaker realizes as he explains his last, unfilmed script on video — an act that he and his cameraman justify to themselves by saying that he is not making a film, just appearing on camera — is that much of what a film is cannot be explained beforehand. He shows DVDs of his films and points out location details and performance tics he couldn’t plan for. No such things show up in his floor plan or descriptions. You cannot tell a film. So this is not a film.

Panahi has a deep need to make movies, and watching his anguish as he desperately tries to figure out how to make a film without making a film is horrifying. What he does is incidental: he lives in his apartment, watches the news, tends to his pet iguana, refuses to take care of a neighbour’s dog. He gets bad news from his lawyer by phone. On the night of a fireworks celebration, a friend tells him that there is public unrest outside. Panahi looks out the window.

All of this is done in scenes of modest cinematography (the cameraman, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, reveals that he is an amateur), and simple incidents. It works because Panahi himself is a terrific man to spend 70 minutes with; he’s always intensely engaged with his surroundings and his filmmaking, he’s passionate, and he’s funny. He is also in the midst of an epiphany, as he slowly comes to realize exactly what it takes to make a difference.

What’s extraordinary about This Is Not a Film is how it answers the title’s implicit question, “What makes a film?” The answer finally comes in an ending sequence that contains a single extended shot of immense bravery. Panahi at last grabs the camera himself and illegally takes it into the hallway outside his apartment. He conducts an impromptu documentary interview with a man taking out the trash in the apartment building. What comes next is as surprising as it is inspiring.

It’s an erudite work, made great sheerly by the act of making it, and its modest production and release constitute an immense moral achievement equal to any other in cinema history. What makes a film? A human being with the courage and the drive to pick up a camera and do it. Panahi has made his.


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