copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

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.

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,”

“The essayist becomes conscious of his own self, must find himself and build something out of himself” (22, 2011).

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

“active and assertive consciousness that tests, undoes, or re-creates itself through experience, including the experiences of memory, argument, active desire, and reflective thinking. Embedded within the textual action of the film, the essayistic subject becomes the product of changing experimental expressions rather than simply the producer of expressions” (31, 2011).

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),

“Although I’m under house arrest at least I’m lucky enough to have a home, even if I’m held captive.”

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,

“The work of some filmmakers questioned the ideology of a singular national character and a transcendental national purpose. They sought radical change more than social amelioration” (226, 2010).

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.

Works cited

Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film: From Montaigne, after Marker. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

King, Susan. "Hollywood Shines Light on Director Jafar Panahi's Sentencing in Iran." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 14 Jan. 2011. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2011.

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