Panahi talking to his friend Mirtahmasb over the phone while eating breakfast.

Opening title card: This is Not a Film.

"Dad, listen, I turned the camera on, and placed it on the chair."

The camera acts merely as a prop.

Rekindling his friendship with his daughter’s pet iguana, Igi.

Speaking on the phone with his lawyer about the charges against him.

Panahi explains to Mirtahmasb what he would like do…

…He wants to tell his unmade film, create an image of what the film would have been.

Panahi says “cut” to Mirtahmasb, but his friend reminds him he’s not a director anymore. This fact finally dawns upon Panahi.

The iguana grazes about.

Igi wants Panahi’s attention…

…Igi crawls on top of him.

Best friends.

The film as essay:
Jafar Panahi’s search for self
in This is Not a Film

by Bebe Nodjomi

If it is only the capacity to choose that allows one to protest his social un-freedom, then what becomes of an individual who chooses to do what he/she is restrained from doing?  How can a filmmaker define himself as anything but a filmmaker? Just two years after the election debacle of 2009, we find Iran’s cinema hyper-consciously aware of inner turmoil, unrest, and social anxiety within the state.

While it became evident that a sense of common purpose, a sense of community no longer exists within the state, Iranian cinema shortly thereafter begins to fork off into different directions. Following Abbas Kiarostami’s departure from Iran (shooting Certified Copy in Italy and later Like Someone in Love in Japan), filmmakers Asghar Farhadi and Jafar Panahi simultaneously bring two films to the table. Although both filmed in Iran, one outshone the other. As A Separation took the Oscar for best foreign film, showcasing the country as humanely as possible, its counterpart, This is Not a Film, represents the true bleak state of art and politics. A meditation on self-discovery under the hand of oppression, Panahi’s film essay attempts to explore what it means to be a filmmaker who cannot create films anymore.

In the summer of 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran for reelection against the progressive opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Iranians were sure that Mousavi would win with ease, but two hours before the polls closed, the government declared a landslide victory in Ahmadinejad’s favor. Pouring into the streets, donning various shades of green (Mousavi’s campaign color), Iranians protested and chanted, “Where is my vote?” and “Death to the dictator!” Western media was barred from entering Iran and Iranians took images and videos of the protests into their own hands. What we saw was a violent backlash from the government towards its people.

Panahi was arrested in 2010 for what continues to be a vague charge against his filmmaking. We can only assume that the charges against his films are actually directed towards his affiliations with the Green Movement, the uprising that sprouted from the 2009 election debacle. At the Montreal World Film Festival he was pictured wearing a green scarf around his neck flashing the peace sign (a symbol Mousavi often posed with). Back in Iran, he attended Neda Agha Soltan’s funeral, an innocent bystander killed during the protests whose face had become the emblem of the Green Movement. Since such actions could be considered anti-regime, it is safe to assume that Panahi’s arrest is more linked to his political activities than simply his filmmaking.

Nonetheless, his filmmaking became an easy target, as we see in This is Not a Film when Panahi makes note of several films he had planned on creating that were never approved by the ministry. After being put in prison, Panahi went on a hunger strike until he was released upon $200,000 bail and subject to house arrest. Upon his imprisonment, he stated (towards the government),

"You are putting me on trial for making a film that, at the time of the arrest, was only thirty percent shot. If these charges are true, you are putting not only us on trial but the socially conscious, humanistic and artistic Iranian cinema as well, which tries to stay beyond good and evil, a cinema that does not judge or surrender to power or money, but tries to honestly reflect a realistic image of the society" (King, LA Times).

Pahani was sentenced to six years in prison with a twenty-year ban on filmmaking, screenwriting, and attending any international cinema functions. His voice muted…or so we thought.

He goes on to state,

 “I am staying in my country and I like to work in my own country. I love my country, I have paid a price for this love too, and I am willing to pay again if necessary” (King, LA Times).

He proceeds to do just that. Flash-forward to a year later: we watch him eating breakfast in the home he’s been confined to as he calls his documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to come pay him a visit. After this introduction, the film’s (or should I say “film”) opening title card gives us a solid foundation: This is Not a Film. If what we’re watching, in a traditional sense is not a “film” then what can we define this moving image as? Many critics have dubbed This is Not a Film simply as a “nonfilm” or have gone onto praise Panahi’s political gesture as the culmination of what has developed into a great film, or some have simply left the question of the work’s nature unanswered. I want argue though, that as this film derives from a combination of what Bill Nichols has coined as the social issue documentary and the personal portrait documentary, it actually coalesces to form a new type of essay film.

We can classify the political documentary as having either a social issue narrative or a personal portrait narrative, and while This is not a Film fits simultaneously into both tendencies, it can’t fully be defined by either category. Nichols further explains,

“Social issue documentary might seem to go with the expository mode and an earlier moment in documentary, whereas personal portraiture might seem to go with observational or participatory modes and contemporary debates about the politics of identity” (243, 2010).

The former might rely more on rhetoric and content while the latter will focus more on style and personal perspective. Although there is no question that This is Not a Film fits more appropriately into the personal portrait documentary, I believe that because Panahi and his friend Mirtahmasb are vocally expressive about whether or not what they are documenting will constitute as a film, their conversation shifts this work into the form of an essay.

This is Not a Film opens with the camera functioning merely as a prop. There is no “filmmaking” involved. His son left the camera. It’s there on a chair, facing Panahi’s bedroom. His family calls, we see the phone in the distance, but Panahi doesn’t enter frame to pick it up. His son leaves a message on the answering machine stating,

“Dad, listen. I turned the camera on, and placed it on the chair. I just think there isn’t much charge left in it. The battery might run out.”

Panahi momentarily pops his head out of the master bathroom to see the camera facing him. After he puts on his jeans, he’s about to the leave the room when he rather reluctantly turns back to take the camera with him, carrying it by his side. Judging by this gesture and the quality, we can assume it’s a standard HD-formatted documentary camera. Panahi simply moves the camera from one room to another, placing it atop a surface, at a distance, never quite acknowledging its presence, indifferent to its existence. He’s left with his only companion, his daughter’s pet iguana Igi. He washes Igi’s food and attempts to reconcile his friendship with Igi, “Here. Eat and let’s make up,” he says, as he tries feeding the lizard. The iguana ignores him; Panahi annoyed, gives up with the stubborn creature and changes the camera setup.

He sits at a table drinking tea as the camera focuses on him in a medium close-up. He makes a telephone call to his lawyer, questioning what exactly has come of his appeal. She says that the twenty-year ban on filmmaking, scriptwriting, or discussion on film in a foreign country will likely remain. However, she is hopeful that his sentence to prison will be reduced. We then notice that Mirtahmasb must have arrived, as the camera becomes mobile, following Panahi’s actions as he begins to talk to the camera, looking both directly at the camera and the figure we presume who’s holding it. Panahi explains what he would like to attempt to do: read his unmade film. “I might create an image of it perhaps,” he says. He could try to have the audience envision a film, the film that was only 30% complete at the time of his arrest, by reading the script and telling the action and setting of the film.

Now the irony behind Mirtahmasb’s future project cannot remain unnoticed, as he had indeed planned on creating a documentary about the world behind-the-scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films. Panahi calls upon Mirtahmasb to be his fellow documenter. He believes the vision of his film could be better conveyed with a mobile camera than the static shot a tripod gives. As Panahi is searching to find himself in this moment, under house arrest, without the ability to partake in filmmaking, he is projecting his innermost thoughts outwardly. In his dialogue with Mirtahmasb, Panahi’s private self, through the act of documentation, is projected then as a public self. Filming the thought process as a form of personal expression, Panahi makes audiences start to question what type of a “film” this work actually is. We can take into consideration the pun and nod in reference to René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, where a painting of a pipe is captioned in French, “This is not a pipe,” hinting rather that this is a drawing of a pipe and not the object-in-itself. Similarly both This is not a Film and “This is not a pipe” force viewers to rethink and rework what the image is representing. This is not a Film, however, particularizes and questions filmmaking and the film mode.

The essay film tends to blur modes of filmmaking and searches for a new mode. Often times, the unclassifiable nature of film essays leads to a misunderstanding of their perplexing intended goal. Timothy Corrigan attempts to resolve these complications in his book, The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Corrigan notes that the very power and point of the essay film comes from its “anti aesthetic status,” that what makes these films so unique comes from the film form’s ambiguity (4, 2011). Many of Corrigan’s thoughts and theories will be relevant for exploring and understanding a film like Panahi’s. Throughout This is Not a Film, Panahi’s actions and intentions are seemingly clear, but as the process continues he becomes more aware of just how unsure he is of his product. Not only is the nature of the film at odds, but Panahi is also discovering how to create a new self, a new identity under the sanctions of the Islamic Republic. Corrigan states that the essayistic subject projects

“an interior self into an exterior instrumental world…[taking] an expressive self to a public domain as a form of experience that continually tests and undoes the limits and capacities of that self through that experience…demanding both a loss of self and the rethinking and remaking of the self” (17, 2011).

With an identity crisis looming, Panahi sets his plan for telling his film, and double checks with his cohort whether or not acting or reading his screenplay were counted in the assaults.

Throughout the film Panahi and his friend are both unsure of whether or not this exercise will actually become anything, let alone a film. Mirtahmasb continually expresses his unease with acting and telling as film-related activities that could potentially hurt Panahi in the long run. Panahi says “cut” to Mirtahmasb at one point, but Mirtahmasb keeps filming. Panahi, a little taken aback asks him why he didn’t cut. But his friend responds by reminding him that he’s not allowed to direct, that Panahi should read his script aloud and Mirtahmasb will simply follow him. This is Panahi searching on how not to be a director. We can tell that the act of directing has become something innate, second nature to him. In talking to the camera, telling, explaining his film, speaking to Mirtahmasb about his circumstances, interacting with his small cast of nonhuman characters (Igi and a dog Micky), he is, at best, writing (or filming) an essay.

While Panahi’s work describes a story of sorts, it is more so what some might call a video-essay. It is Panahi’s response to the government; it is conveying his frustrations as he tackles his frustrations. He is not directing but efficiently showing through one day’s work, a day in the life of a filmmaker under the Islamic State’s internal exile. “Chaharshanbe Suri” or what translates in the West as, “Fireworks Wednesday,” is a day of rejuvenation before the New Year, where people celebrate the coming of spring. Families visit each other; people bang pots and pans, stopping at houses like U.S. Halloween; and small bonfires are hopped over as acts of purification. The general atmosphere is lively, optimistic, warm—inviting the New Year’s potential. The juxtaposition between Panahi roaming about his house idly against the backdrop of a joyous communal holiday such as Fireworks Wednesday seems like an all too perfect setup.

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