We know him as a world-renowned festival director, and more recently, a captive of the Iranian government. But we hardly think of Jafar Panahi as one of the preeminent makers of modern crime movies, on par with Michael Mann and the Coen Brothers. Where Mann and the Coens downplay the sociological aspects of crime in favor of pursuing highly stylized dramatic archetypes, Panahi swaps out overt scenes of violence and deception for much smaller everyday transgressions. But the consequences are no less harsh, both for his characters and his films, the last four of which have all been banned in his homeland.
The Circle (2000) follows women whose every self-preserving move is illegal in Iranian society; Crimson Gold (2003) is bookended by a unassuming pizza delivery guy’s robbery-suicide; and Offside (2006) follows soccer-crazy girls breaking the law to get into a World Cup qualifying match (women aren’t allowed into Iranian stadiums). In all three films, criminality isn’t of the Ten Commandments-universal kind, but stems from conditions of widespread inequality that Panahi diagrams with ruthless precision. This Is Not a Film is his latest “crime” movie, with the director himself starring as a “criminal” out to make one last score before being sent off to jail.
It’s hard to imagine someone showing up for This Is Not A Film unaware of Panahi’s imprisonment; he’s now more prominent as a political martyr than he was as merely an arthouse filmmaker. If not, a brief recap: in 2009, Panahi wore a long green scarf as a juror at the Montreal Film Festival; such gestures, plus his repeatedly making films that run afoul of the censors, led to a spurious trial for shooting an “anti-regime”work in his own house ending with a six year jail sentence and a 20 year ban on leaving the country or making films. While waiting for his trial, he surreptitiously made a digital feature, which he smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake. (The film’s sly title should be taken literally; it’s not on film stock.)
The plot’s simple enough: sitting at home, unable to move anywhere legally, Panahi spends time feeding the family iguana, making tea and desultorily calling his lawyer before inviting an unnamed friend (Mojbata Mirtahmasb, also jailed in mid-September) over to record him reading out a screenplay he was forbidden from realizing. Eventually it gets late and Mirtahmasb leaves; a dude comes to collect the trash. End.
Always more than meets the eye, Panahi’s films feature non-professionals and a wry flexibility that makes it hard to sift the staged from the spontaneous; This Is Not A Film is similarly difficult to pin down, even as an ostensibly straightforward home movie from a jail-bound subject. Under house arrest, Panahi’s denied the mobility powering his previous films (taken together, The Circle,Crimson Gold and Offside seemingly traverse all of Tehran). Confined to a single building, Panahi can only describe the courtyard he envisioned as the major exterior for a script he planned to film before he was arrested; the film he describes is a claustrophobic piece about a young woman locked into a house by relatives determined not to let her go to an arts university.
Is Panahi really staging (complete with tape on the floor mapping out the dimensions of his set) a screenplay he wanted to make? Or did he just quickly make up the screenplay as a way to make veiled reference to his position: self-censorship even within a forbidden product, a compromise within a film which, once outside, will infuriate the government already after him? Is the garbage delivery man who shows up towards the end —who is also a student who gives a monologue about his various jobs and how he emerged from the shower to see the police rush in for Panahi — a real passer-by, or actor? Panahi can’t remember having ever seen him, but the man claims to be a regular presence in the building.
These teasing clues and possible readings are perfectly in keeping with Panahi’s previous movies —except now the director’s the subject, a housebound convict who marks time by playing enthusiastic straight-man to an iguana.His annotations of his own films are fascinating, as are glimpses of Bean, Hot Tub Time Machine and Buried on his DVD shelves. On screen, Panahi is energetic, genial and surprisingly casual, a non self-aggrandizing martyr denying his importance. His film encourages stimulating thoughts about reality vs non-reality, etc. and it’s awfully well-shot; it’s as playful as his previous work, but context gives what’s already an enjoyable brain-teaser an unspoken but unavoidable charge. The film is in good spirits; only when it’s done do you wonder how much Panahi had to work to present a cheeky, upbeat front.
He’s filming on Fireworks Wednesday, a 3,000-year-old holiday, and the random explosions coming from outside are unnerving. Trapped in his apartment, Panahi is unable to rove outside to witness the celebration of a pre-Islamic custom that was condemned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei as a source of “harm and corruption.”As the evening drags on, the director’s friend calls to say he was briefly stopped at a police checkpoint, but that’s all he hears about an evening where minor acts of public defiance (burning pictures of Khamanei, ominous roaming of the streets) went on, with people acting out far more blatantly than Panahi ever did. Even here, he just gently hints at the depths of public frustration, as if still working under the eyes of censorship. But this particular crime movie stands to play on without his direction.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.