Rob Edelman: Panahi

Mar 25, 2013

A SEPARATION was one of the top films of 2011. In fact, it deservedly earned the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. I mention it now because its country of origin is Iran and, over a year ago, prior to the Oscar ceremony, I put forth a question: Should the current, seemingly endless hullaballoo surrounding Iran in any way impact on one’s view of this film-- or, if you are an Oscar voter, impact on your decision to vote or not vote for A SEPARATION?

Well, another Iranian film of note has just been released on DVD from Palisades Tartan. It is a documentary, and it offers keen insight into life in Iran and issues ranging from free speech to artistic freedom. The film, ironically enough, is titled THIS IS NOT A FILM, and it spotlights the challenges inherent in making movies under the umbrella of Iranian censorship.

THIS IS NOT A FILM depicts a day in the life of Jafar Panahi, the acclaimed director of THE WHITE BALLOON, THE MIRROR, THE CIRCLE, CRIMSON GOLD, and OFFSIDE. Among the themes Panahi explores in his work are the corruption of innocence, social imbalance in his country, and sexism. In 2010, Panahi was arrested and imprisoned for “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Dozens of filmmakers, actors, and critics from across the globe called for his release.

Panahi eventually was released on $200,000 bail and, while appealing a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban from filmmaking, he is visited in his Tehran apartment by fellow director Motjaba Mirtahmasb. THIS IS NOT A FILM is the product of that visit. It was partially shot on an iPhone, and it eventually was smuggled into France inside a cake. It also was a last-minute submission to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

On one level, not much happens in the film. There is idle talk and, superficially, there is a sense of the mundane here. But between the lines, there is a lot going on. For one thing, Panahi is shown on the telephone, discussing the sobering specifics of his case with his lawyer. He also cites one of his screenplays, about a woman who is being denied an education because of her gender, and he becomes upset as he expresses his feelings about why he is unable to make this film and how his creativity is being stifled.

With this in mind, you can ponder the reality that a repressive, authoritarian regime is not allowing a filmmaker to make a film about repression and how, in one-too-many countries across the globe, if you are a creative person and you refuse merely to create propaganda for the state, you will be stifled, ostracized-- or worse.

Despite its title, THIS IS NOT A FILM is, indeed, wonderfully cinematic. It is many things: a political tract; a defiant thumbing of one’s nose at an intolerant government; and an exploration of one filmmaker’s life and career.

One final note: THIS IS NOT A FILM opened theatrically in the U.S. in February of last year. And there is a postscript on the DVD. In October, 2012, Panahi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, given by the European Parliament, which honors individuals or organizations who are dedicated to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

Panahi, of course, could not attend the ceremony because he is forbidden to leave Iran. He requested that fellow director Costa-Gavras read a statement on his behalf. That statement begins with a question: “Why do the governments, the almighty and powerful, become more intolerant every day? History is the narrative of the few, making the lives of the many miserable, while using the most unacceptable excuses: differences in sex, language, religion, or political ideas.”

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of  Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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