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Filmmaker, Incarcerated

Posted on Mar 6, 2012

Director Jafar Panahi reflects in “This Is Not a Film.”

By Richard Schickel

Jafar Panahi is a well-known Iranian filmmaker—in trouble with the regime for reasons not stated in this movie—who has been sentenced to six years in jail and a 20-year ban on making movies (or even talking about them to the press). Currently he is under house arrest in his pleasant Tehran apartment, where he fills the days as best he can.

When we meet him, his family is away on year-end holiday and all he has to do is keep company with Igi, his daughter’s pet iguana, who isn’t much to look at but has a cuddlesome side to his nature. In the course of the day covered in “This Is Not a Film,” Panahi talks on the phone to lawyers and friends and entertains some people who drop by on various minor errands (a little girl, for instance, tries to get him to baby-sit her yappy dog, but he frightens Igi).

One visitor is not so innocent, though he is cheerful enough. He’s another director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and, using a small camera and an iPhone, they are conspiring to make a film, which is of course the “Not Film” of the title. It is, they insist, an “effort” and is so described in the end credits. Panahi talks about some of the scenes from the film he was working on when he was arrested, even taping off the outline on the floor of a room in which some of the imaginary movie’s scenes would have taken place. Uncannily, it is the story of a young woman confined to her home because her parents don’t want her to go to university.

Frankly, it’s hard to say what this film would have amounted to. One of the incidental lessons “This Is Not a Film” teaches is that a film is not a film until it is a film. You can talk about it, outline it, enthuse over it, but it is still just hot air until sets are built, actors engaged, cameras rolling. And that is what’s most touching about this movie. Mirtahmasb is trying to distract his friend, give him something to fill his empty, yearning days. And in this he succeeds.

Still, you can’t help but reflect on what a cruel punishment house arrest exacts on a movie director. Writers, painters, composers can continue to work in solitude; indeed, their art demands it. But filmmaking demands bustle—and a small army of collaborators. Panahi and his pal do their best, but it is make-work and, almost subliminally, they acknowledge that fact.

You can see it, particularly, in the way Panahi clings to other visitors before and after Mirtahmasb arrives, such as a young man who arrives to collect the trash. He follows him on his rounds, elicting something like the full story of his life and ambitions. He’s never pathetic about this—he’s a cheerful interrogator—but you do sense his need.

“This Is Not a Film” is, of course, a film, and, as such, it has its problems. It’s only 75 minutes long, but inevitably it has its tiresome passages. In the end, it leaves Panahi essentially where we found him, and where, likely, we would find him tomorrow morning. But that’s not the point. It was smuggled out of Iran. It played the Cannes Film Festival last spring and is now in limited release elsewhere. Its makers and backers obviously hope that it will rally the international cultural community to his plight (and by extension that of other dissident artists). In any case, Panahi is a likable and, I think, an optimistic individual worth getting to know. And cheer for. I think all of us can spare 75 minutes to share if not his largely buried pain, then his plight. And remember that for some people, the simple act of going to a movie, and maybe having dinner afterward, is more of a privilege than we imagine.

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, March 11, 2012 at 11:24 am Link to this comment

Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn about truthdig’s rock and hard place situation.

I didn’t oblige them to put up this site and srta calling it a progressive site.  If they cannot focus on the REAL evils on the planet, they should get out of the biz.

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UreKismet's avatar

By UreKismet, March 10, 2012 at 8:08 pm Link to this comment

Yer all correct in yer assessment of the reasons why Iranian moves to have dissent stick to legitimate tactics, and the way that imperial ass-lickers make a big noise about the Irainian authorities efforts, while saying nothing about far worse oppression in the imperial domestic ‘society’, but I’m less sure that truth dig should ignore stories on Iran’s control of dissent.

They’re sorta between a rock and that hard place.  If they run basic, relatively factual (or as factual as Truthdig can find) articles on Iran’s censorship we all get upset and rant at em.

If they don’t run those stories at all the next time truth dig runs an article sourced outside amerika, that hasn’t been picked up by the ass-lickers of amerikan media; and that story is embarassing to the political elite, that elite will neatly step around that issue and any other truthdig publishes, by telling the mob that truthdig is propaganda and only runs stories that align with editorial opinion.
So if thruthdig happily tells lies of ommission (the elite’s sock puppets will say) why wouldn’t it tell lies of commision?  That is, make up stories to feed its ‘loony leftie’ readers?

If this site is to exist as anything more than somewhere to come and get all depressed about the way the world has screwed the pooch, it must remain credible to the limp wristed liberal.

So we’ll hafta pinch our nostrils shut with one hand and operate our mouse with the other whenever TD reprints one of these pieces of propaganda.

Get all heated if such stories begin to predominate
Plus it seems to moi, that some TD staff cannot bring themselves to renounce the prissy sleek n combed over pols who populate the dem party, but who doesn’t have such ninnies within their own social circle?
  Maybe a hermit.
Except for hermits, it is a sad fact that some peeps just cannot acknowledge ‘democracy’ has evolved into a system that penalises honest/principled citizens out of the political process long before they can be nominated for dog catcher.  Equally sad is some citizens’ inability to acknowledge this reality.
Their stubborn refusal is most likely a result of a ‘finger in the dyke’ take on the truth about the society they find themselves in.
Conscious or sub-conscious - who knows?  These types have formed the belief that to acknowledge that oblamblam is a lying wall st shill, would be to destroy the last bulwark they have erected to convince themselves that their existence has an ethical world view underpinning it.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, March 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm Link to this comment

So, I guess one can make the same case for the invasion of the USA bases on the treatment of Bradly Manning and about 10,000 young Muslim men who have disappeared into CIA Black prisons without trial or charge?

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, March 8, 2012 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

The function of imperial US directed (economic weapons of war) sanctions is to lay siege upon the targeted state, to collectively punish its people, weaken its defenses, and cause its government to allow paranoia to control all domestic decisions… before the target is militarily attacked.

Whenever there’s a new target, the corporate-state’s massive multi-media propaganda machine readily and steadily beats millions of different drums for the next war.

Terrorist Production for Bomb Destruction:

Jill Stein for President:

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, March 8, 2012 at 3:42 am Link to this comment

I saw Crimson Gold.

I liked it alot.

Look on the bright side Jafar, you could be Bradley Manning or one of the 5% of black males currently incarcerated in the US.

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By moonraven, March 7, 2012 at 12:03 pm Link to this comment

Come on, truthdig, stop shilling for an invasion of Iran.  I am beginning to smell some dirty money around here.

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