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Banned Iranian director Jafar Panahi makes a movie, and a statement

After being smuggled into Cannes last May, banned Iranian director Jafar Panahi's "This is Not a Film" hits French screens this week. A video diary of life under house arrest, the movie is both a nimble entertainment and an act of political defiance.


Most of the buzz at the Cannes Film Festival last May revolved around men behaving badly: Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier facetiously proclaiming himself a Nazi during a press conference and French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn ending up in a New York jail charged with sexual assault.

But amid all the sordid news, there was a quieter, though equally dramatic, story of artistic bravery and political risk-taking. Internationally acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi, under house arrest in Tehran while appealing a six-year prison sentence and 20-year filmmaking ban for spreading “propaganda against the state”, had smuggled his latest work into Cannes on a flash drive buried in a cake.

A first-person chronicle of Panahi’s life within the confines of his apartment as he awaits news from his lawyer, the pointedly titled “This is Not a Film” was screened in the festival’s “Un Certain Regard” category. Now it’s hitting French screens on September 28, as the political drama surrounding the movie continues to unravel; the film’s co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, was reportedly among six Iranian filmmakers arrested in Iran just over a week ago.

Panahi himself was initially arrested in July 2009 at a rally near the grave of slain protester Neda Agha-Soltan. He was released shortly after, but was arrested again in March 2010, and spent nearly three months in prison. He has been forbidden to leave his home since May 2010.

Given this dire context, “This is Not a Film” is remarkably light on its feet, a video-diary-style self-portrait infused with considerable humour and mischief. It is also – particularly in light of the latest developments – something both more urgent and inspiring: an artist’s gasp of creativity in the face of ongoing repression.

'We are not political combatants, we are film directors'

The film begins with a stationary camera capturing Panahi as he putters about, going through the daily motions: eating breakfast, touching base with his lawyer by phone, feeding a pet iguana, conversing with neighbours. The movie’s tone becomes gradually darker and more confessional when Panahi’s friend and colleague Mirtahmasb arrives for a visit and picks up the camera to record the filmmaker. Panahi allows hints of despair to filter through his otherwise congenial manner when he speaks of his past work – his best-known movie is the taut neo-realist drama “The Circle”, about a handful of women recently released from prison – and his present circumstances. He also grows frustrated when acting out a scene from a new screenplay (already rejected by the Iranian authorities) about a young woman locked in her home by her fundamentalist parents, finally throwing up his hands and wondering aloud: “If we could tell a film, why make a film?”

In the last stretch of “This is Not a Film”, Panahi accompanies the building’s garbage collector as he makes his rounds. Turning the camera away from himself and toward this young Iranian who chats breezily about his aspirations, the director’s gaze settles on fires burning just outside the residence gates. The unspoken tension between faith in the country’s potential and bone-deep resignation about its currently grim reality haunts the film until its final frame.

In prepared notes distributed to the press, Mirtahmasb seems to resist any recognition for political heroics. “We would prefer to be free men rather than imprisoned heroes,” he writes. “We are not political combatants, we are film directors.”

Those comments, along with the movie’s title, belie the fact that “This is Not a Film” is ultimately both quite cinematic – tense, stirring, visually nimble, and bitterly funny – and an inherently political act of defiance. As Mirtahmasb himself tells Panahi while filming him, “What matters is that this is documented. It matters that these cameras stay on.”

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