Mapping out the room of his main character.
Panahi reads his script and acts as the main female protagonist of his would-be film.
"If we could tell a film, then why make a film?"
Panahi idly films with his iPhone.
Irony. As Panahi watches homes wash adrift, he is stuck in his own home under house arrest.
Mirtahmasb exclaims how important it is to document, that from the moment he set foot in jail, he should have started filming.
The two are unsure of whether or not this could turn into a film.
Mirtahmasb believes the cameras, no matter the quality, should remain ON. He encourages his Panahi to continue filming.
Panahi runs into a stranger, a student turned trash-collector…
The student knows of Panahi’s status and wonders why a director like himself is filming on an iPhone…
He states that the camera for a director is on the table, hinting to him to pick it up.
At last, we see Panahi resurrecting his craft.
The two journey down the elevator together.
Iranians are out celebrating, enjoying themselves and Panahi is left home alone with a mammoth-sized iguana. The two graze about the apartment together. Panahi attempts to rekindle his friendship with Igi. Igi crawls on to Panahi’s chest. Igi retreats away behind the bookshelves. While these moments come off as dull, they stress the nature of being encaged for a twelve to fourteen hour day. Moreover, they actually turn out to be some of the most entertaining parts of the film. Panahi and Mirtahmasb utilize humor to their advantage, underlining how absurd a man trapped in his house feels. They depict how much the government equates Panahi with an animal, so like his own pet iguana stuck in his cage. These moments, though, make the film more comedic than sad. Instead of feeling remorse about his circumstances, feeling sorry for him, or pitying him, we end up laughing.
A refuge, a way to poke fun at the situation, laughter invokes hope that maybe this is all just one sad elongated joke. For him to paint a portrait that encourages us to laugh in the darkest of moments portrays his brave outlook, his willingness to cope within the state’s terms and conditions, so long as he can continue living in Iran. Laughter acts as a force against oppression, and happiness becomes a form of stealthy freedom. When Panahi attempts to finally tell the story of his planned film, we discover it’s about a girl who’s accepted to an arts university but restricted from attending because of strict traditional parents, and consequently caged in her room by them. Sounds similar to someone we know…
To act out his future script for us, Panahi constructs a makeshift set out of tape in the corner of his lavish rug. The rug as a whole represents the girl’s entire house. He lays long strips of yellow-colored tape to indicate the particular room where the action of his script would have taken place. It looks similar to a child mapping out territory, marking off where his designated space would be. He places himself within the girl’s “room,” where he had hoped his character would be. He uses a pillow as a stand-in bed and a chair to indicate the window she longingly stares out of.
He begins reading the script, acting in place for both the mother and the daughter arguing, explaining emotions and movements, but midway through, after he confronts a crucial scene of the girl’s potential suicide, he stops. If one cannot do what one loves, then why exist? “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” Panahi says before briskly walking off his own set. Panahi’s frustrations are well conveyed. As he tosses himself onto the “bed” “crying” as a girl, we can see how his fantasy of creating such an image for an audience deteriorates. It’s almost as though we are watching a rather disturbing portrait of a grown man playing dress-up, that is how different “telling” a film is from creating a film.
While he identifies with his lead female character and places himself in her position, in the end, he is not the girl. He is Jafar Panahi, a man whose identity is created by filmmaking. We watch him lie on the floor, playing pretend, an action that culminates in his loss of selfhood. We find him not only identifying with the female character of his would-be film but also reflecting upon his past work, particularly Mirror which stars another young female nonactor. He says he’s stuck in the same situation Mina had been in—forced into acting as someone she (or he) is not. While she’s supposed to act as if she’s lost her way home, she stops, stares into the camera and yells she knows the real way home and doesn’t want to act anymore. Panahi too wants to stop telling, explaining his story and become who he knows he is: a filmmaker.
By relating to female characters in Iranian Cinema, he equates himself with a minority or a marginalized oppressed group in society. By doing this he deconstructs power structures that exist in Iranian society and attempts, in one way or another, to wipe out boundaries between man and woman. We could also say, he is searching on how to be, what I would call, a “nondirector.” Not quite like the “nonactors” Panahi admires, the “nondirector” has knowledge of the craft of directing, but temporarily displaces this status for his actions to be warranted as acceptable “film activity” under the constraint of a certain mandate, in this case, to abide by the Islamic courts. The unease of having to be someone he is not allows him to refer back to his own work in retrospect, to a time he was in control as a director. He relinquishes his control to Mirtahmasb and as a “nondirector” turns into the subject, instead of the established figure he is known to be.
When discussing conceptions of the self, Corrigan quotes Georg Lukacs’ “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,”
As Panahi looks back retroactively to a time he had authority as a director, he’s now experiencing a plight of power. This “shifting and disembodied” self has left him powerless and we can see the camera develop as a symbol of assertion. The nonactor, like Mina for example, is more comfortable in being herself, not as an actor. The nondirector, though is uneasy until he can reassert himself as a director. As we constantly see Panahi filming idly with his iPhone, it is a fellow visitor who later helps him regain this sense of self, telling him the professional camera is over there.
Corrigan later goes on to say that essayistic subjectivity refers to an individual’s
So we see Panahi actively talking and discussing his circumstances, but of course never openly demeaning or speaking ill of the government. He reflects both upon himself and the world around him. Panahi turns the television on only to watch as hundreds of homes are being swept away by the tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. It is a discreet but sly insert, as if to say (which he does not verbally),
As Mirtahmasb continues to film the banality of Panahi’s Fireworks Wednesday, checking the Internet, shooing Igi off of him, watching Igi make his way into a bookshelf, Mirtahmasb notes that he doesn’t know exactly how dependable the footage that he shot will be. The makers themselves are unsure of their product’s “filmicness” as I would call it. After all as we watched Panahi reflect on his previous works, a film is incomplete without his usual nontraditional actors. A film to Panahi is location, nonactors, lights, camera, not the setup he had earlier with a tripod. Even bringing Mirtahmasb in as his documentarian assistant doesn’t make this experiment more filmic. Corrigan explains, “essays” are actually “attempts,” “tries,” or “tests” (15, 2011). When Panahi stops filming with his iPhone, the deep reassuring voice we’ve identified as Mirtahmasb encourages him to film on. Panahi’s lost self slowly seems to resurrect itself within the closing fifteen minutes of his essay. He continues to film Mirtahmasb with his iPhone, “When hair dressers get bored they cut each other’s hair,” Mirtahmasb says jokingly. When he leaves he states, “What matters is that the camera stays ON, the main thing is to document.”
Documenting, as a political act, needs to be tightly thought out in Iran. As Nichols states about social nature of documentary,
However, is such an idyllic notion of social change even possible in Iran? Can a film of self-exploration like this act as a marker for social change? If the film had to be smuggled out of the country, on a flash drive, inside of a cake, if the film could only, at first, be seen by an outside public, people who would be relatively ineffective against Iran’s government, then why make such a film? What does this search for Panahi’s selfhood even constitute in the end? What is the point in watching him drink tea and figure out what to do if no one will be able to do anything in return? This essayistic act of taking something private and putting it out into the public sphere is a way for individuals all around the world to see that although one Iranian filmmaker has made a grand unprecedented leap for his country, this triumph should not disillusion us about the state of other filmmakers like Panahi, or now Mirtahmasb.
In the end of it all, he searches for an adventure with a newfound friend, who, as I mentioned earlier, asserts, “The professional camera is over there. I have an iPhone, everyone has an iPhone, could you make a film with that?” This question repeats itself throughout—what is the mode of a film, what can a film be made with? If Panahi had since been simply making an essay of his conditions, then does he transform into the director once he journeys down the elevator with the Master’s student? The trash-collector for Panahi’s apartment complex drops by to pick up the director’s trash just as Mirtahmasb is leaving. We come to find out that the “trash-collector” just so happens to be obtaining his Master’s student degree (seems like the job prospects for Master’s students are looking great).
As persuaded by this nameless Master’s student, Panahi swaps his low-quality iPhone for the high quality film camera. The student is impressed by the status that comes with it, straightening his shirt, evidently worried about how his appearance will be translated through this hi-def lens. Panahi asks him his real occupation besides collecting the neighbors’ trash and the student says he’s studying Arts Research. Intrigued by his new subject Panahi decides to follow suit down eight floors to film the trash-collecting student. For each floor they stop at, Panahi continues to ask the stranger about his life. He’s surprised because he believes he’s never seen the man before but the student talks to him with respect, admiration, and assurance that they have indeed met before. Panahi questions why he’s not working in his own field and the student replies by explaining that his area of study doesn’t ensure a daily nine to five job. Rather he takes work in his field when he can and works on the side to fund his education with odd jobs, like working in a textile factory, being a bike courier, taxi driver…He reminds us of the dissatisfied youth, who account for about 70% of the population, unemployed, had hit the streets as part of the Green Movement in 2009. Sometimes there will be work, and sometimes there won’t be. Sounds similar to someone we know…
At last, Panahi identifies himself with a male nonactor and picks up the camera to again take on the brief role of director. Although, the student keeps trying to recount the night of Panahi’s arrest, we never come to hear the whole story. References are made until the very last second when we hope to finally find out what happened that night to Panahi, but the story is never fully explained to us. And maybe that is the point. What is the point in recounting the past if it has not been documented? After all Mirtahmasb says, “What’s important is to document.” That the day he had been captured and sent to prison, he should have started filming. The “document” is what matters. While we understand Panahi’s circumstance, what needs to be “documented” is a picture, a visual image. Panahi covered by an Iguana. Panahi in the middle of a makeshift set. Panahi dealing (or not dealing) with his neighbor’s irritating dog. This may all seem like fun and games to a certain degree of comedic undertone, a sort of play-acting with his cast of actors: Igi, Micky, Mirtahmasb, but how long can a man endure such conditions? This essay becomes a Sisyphean smile in the face of absurdity. It is as close to filmmaking as Panahi can get.
When Panahi introduces us to this Master’s student, we are unsure of its spontaneity, unsure of his response, “You’re making an actor out of me.” We are tossed back into typical Panahi territory; we are taking a trip with a nonactor. Thus, does this last scene finalize This is Not a Film as a film? If, the film’s ending actually fits Panahi’s definition of a film, a good camera a good protagonist, has this crossed the line? I think what answers this question is our final image of a gate closing off fires from Fireworks Wednesday. Although he’s ready to walk to the fire, cross out of the gates, he does not. There is a renowned Persian tragedy by Ferdowsi that tells the story of Siavash, a man wrongly accused, crossing into fire to prove his innocence. Panahi stays within territory. He doesn’t pass into the fire, he holds the camera, a prop, and cuts to the closing title cards. He dubs his product, “An Effort by Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirahmasb.” This ends all questions. Is it a film? Is it a nonfilm? It’s an effort, which is what defines an essay. It’s an attempt to revive his voice. If no one can speak on Panahi’s behalf, then who better to make the effort? As much as he wants to cross the fire into justice, come out pure, untouched like Siavash, he remains back, behind the gates, in captivity. He dedicates his efforts to Iranian Filmmakers, a bittersweet reminder that to film is better than having never filmed at all.