Dear Mr. Panahi: It’s more than a film (2011)

I couldn’t help but think of Ai Wei Wei while watching this gem of a film, This is Not a Film, by the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Filmed in his own apartment while under house arrest, it is both a day in a life under house arrest as well as a “telling” of the film which he was never allowed to make (and partly because of which he is under arrest). He recreates in his living room with the use of yellow duct tape and the support of his fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb doing principal photography, the screenplay of a story about Maryam, an aspiring artist, who is in a form of house arrest by her parents.

In creating a clandestine film about a film which may never be made, he asks: is this a film? If we can tell a film why make a film? This line, delivered simply and truly, was heartbreaking; you could understand both the emotion and the intellectual curiosity behind it. To be denied his livelihood is demoralizing and heartbreaking for him. Above all, however, it raises a critical question about the production and consumption of art. In addition, it pits the different languages of art and of politics: Mr. Panahi is not allowed make films or write screenplays for 20 years. But is he allowed to re-create a screenplay? Is that a form of film? Of art? Is that an offence for which he can be punished?

Mr. Panahi answers his own question: you make the film first, and then you explain later. In other words, filmmaking is both a linear process as well as an entity consisting of many parts: the writing, the acting, the filming, the editing, the consuming – the art of making art and the art of watching art. We make films not just for the finished product but for the implied and literal dialogue we can have with our audiences. Film is acting, is mise-en-scene, is a product, is an experience. While the government can curb the mechanics of filmmaking, it persists, as long as a camera (or in this case, an iPhone) is on.

Ironically, this not-a-film turns out to be a very expressive piece of cinematic art. In reading the screenplay, he creates for us an image of a film, and in turning the lens on his life, we realize that the act of framing can make life into art.

In Film Nist (This is Not a Film). Dir. Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011. In Farsi.

Ceci N’est Pas Un Film.