By Richard von Busack
“If we could tell a film, why make a film?” That’s the question in This Is Not A Film, opening for a week long run at the SF Film Society Cinema in San Francisco. Forbidden from the activity he was born to do, director Jafar Panahi documents himself while he is obliged to sit at home and await the pleasure of the Iranian government. And while Panahi deals with this government, he interacts with visitors and collaborators.
In the act of not making a film, he and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb demonstrate the real sadism of placing someone under house arrest. It’s an extreme form of “grounding,” the punishment a parent gives a misbehaving teen. It makes a man a child. It makes him an invalid. It takes a place he loves best and turns it into his prison.
Panahi, who looks like a smaller Jack La Lanne, films himself with cell-phone and digital camera during the course of Fireworks Wednesday, the Iranian New Year’s Eve.
He’s waiting to find his fate for a supposed act of collaboration with a foreign government. His chances don’t look good. His female lawyer, who phones in, says Panahi faces a 30 year sentence for threatening the Islamic Republic. Panahi takes in the news with a gulp of tea. Actually, the lawyer says, it’s possible it’ll just be 2 years inside. Or maybe a “discount” 6 year term. “I should be packing a sack right now,” Panahi says, grinning with embarrassment. Either way, it’s a 20 year ban on working, and a 20 year ban on doing interviews. Since the charge is “100% political,” judicial intervention is unlikely.
The director has been left by his family for the day, since they’re out visiting relatives. Pahani has been asked to baby sit his teenage daughter’s beloved pet iguana, named “Igi”. The reptile intrudes into the frame, climbing up the director’s chest or fumbling across his bookshelf. He’s something like a metaphor for the troubles the director can’t put out of his mind.
Panahi has a computer, of limited use: “Most sites are filtered out and the ones left don’t say anything.” (Happily, the director can read the news from the Iranian Cinema House, the bureau that deals with film, congratulating itself on a victory at the Berlin Film Festival.)
Forbidden to make a film, Panahi shows a few illustrative clips of his movies, The Mirror, The Circle and Crimson Gold (review here). If they won’t let you do, teach. Panahi describes the film he was trying to make when he was interrupted: a story of a girl imprisoned by her fundamentalist family, based on Chekhov’s one-page short story “From the Diary of a Young Girl.” Using masking tape, he blocks out the spaces on his carpet to show what the setups look like. He’s good at it: Hollywood lore is full of stories of directors acting out films for a producer, or a producer acting it out for the moneymen. The limberness of Panahi’s sketches is sometimes funny. He’s a rueful performer: like Henry Jaglom when he’s on his game.
But in the final half hour, Panahi gets a visitor whose purpose is a little mysterious. Is he really a passer-by, a blameless garbage man coming to pick up the trash? Or is he like the man in the Chekhov story, who seems friendly, but who has an ulterior purpose?
With typical subtlety Panahi makes us just as paranoid as he must be getting: we start to read double meanings into this small excursion Panahi makes from his home to the carport, helping this young garbage man with his errands.
“I feel like I took a trip with you, a trip with a bad smell,” says the garbage man. If that’s who he is. You end up smelling a little treachery, and whether that’s intentional or just coincidental is part of this view: a film that is not a film about a police state that pretends not to be one.