Since the advent of the new millennium, every single feature film directed or written by Jafar Panahi has been banned by the Iranian government. His 2003 film Crimson Gold was about a lower-class young man named Hossein who kills himself after being humiliated by society at large during the planning of his upcoming wedding. In his Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema, the Iranian-American scholar Hamid Dabashi wrote in a remarkably prophetic statement that “the bullet that kills Hossein is the bullet that cinematically marks the end of the Islamic Revolution, the dissolution of the solidarity that it temporarily generated and then lost, and with that the end of what today the world calls ‘Iranian cinema,’ a cinema deeply rooted in the revolutionary trauma of a nation.” Abbas Kiarostami, who wrote the script for Crimson Gold, has stopped working in Iran. Panahi has now been sentenced to six years in prison and is also banned from making films for 20 years.
Cinema may be the most self-reflexive of the arts. Ironically though, it is perhaps one of the most collaborative of the arts as well, regardless of what François Truffaut and Andrew Sarris argued in their promotion of the auteur theory. Anyone who has been involved in the making of a film, no matter the size of the budget or the scope, understands that it is not an art form like painting or writing that can be completed on one’s own. And this holds true even for This Is Not a Film, the most recent “film”, directed by Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a work that had no choice but to be minimalist given the circumstances of its creation. While the two men are co-credited as directors of the film, the truth is that it is a byproduct of Panahi’s career and films, ones that have already been completed and one that he had planned to make before his legal problems. Yet, this film that chronicles Panahi’s arrest and his attempts to somehow circumvent the ban on filmmaking would not have been possible without Mirtahmasb filming much of the process and then smuggling the footage out of Iran on a flash drive.
Andrei Tarkovsky famously stated that “the artist exists because the world is not perfect.” And similarly, over the last two decades, Panahi has been able to bless us with a cinema of the highest order because of the repressive nature of the society in which he lives. With This Is Not a Film, he not only presents us with a retrospective of his works but that rare insight into the very physical process of filmmaking. As he explains the premise of the film that he wanted to make but could not due to censorship, he turns the confines of his own house into a film set and in a frenzy of economic movements shows us the complicated blocking involved in shooting a film. One feels blessed to have just witnessed an artist at the top of his game conducting a master class, yet simultaneously feels distressed because none of it would have been possible without the imprisonment of that very master.
Even as we have been treated to such a rare and unfettered glimpse into the nature of filmmaking, we desperately wait for the day when Panahi will be able to make films again. As he asks in an exasperated tone after he runs out of energy after the display of blocking, “If we could tell a film, why make a film?”