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Cinema | 'This Is Not a Film': The Camera Stays ON

by DAN GEIST

18 Oct 2011 23:59Comments
TINAFWhyMakeAFilm.jpgPlus thoughts on "Once Upon a Time In Anatolia" and the unbearable heaviness of being "Chekhovian."

[ cinema ] Jafar Panahi's most recent screenplay -- the last he will be legally permitted to write for 20 years, if the sentence imposed on him ten months ago is not overturned -- concerns a young woman, Maryam, from a traditional family who gains admission to art school. Her conservative parents cannot abide the prospect, and when they leave on a trip, they lock her inside the family home to prevent her from registering for class. She spends the rest of the story trying to figure a way out. In This Is Not a Film (In Film Nist) Panahi -- acting in character, on camera, for the first time in his adult life -- plays Maryam. Transparent and charming when he's being himself, which he does for most of This Is Not a Film, he's a 50-year-old man and no actor, and yet casting hardly gets more apropos.

Does a painter stop being a painter when she is not allowed to paint? Does a dancer stop being a dancer if there's no place he can dance? That's the sort of question Panahi, director of five feature films between 1995 and 2006 -- four of them (The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, and Crimson Gold) great -- faced after December 2010, when he was convicted of conspiring "to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." That conspiracy consisted of working with fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof on a fictional treatment of events following the 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a vote many believe was rigged. Shooting on the picture was 30 percent complete, according to Panahi, when he and Rasoulof and several co-conspirators were arrested -- in Panahi's apartment, where most of This Is Not a Film is set -- and the footage confiscated.

Panahi and Rasoulof were each sentenced to six years in prison, postponed for the time being while appeals continue, and two-decade-long bans not only on screenwriting, but also traveling abroad, giving interviews, and -- most pertinently -- filmmaking. Those bans have been in force ever since. (Of the travel restriction, Panahi has said, "I am in love with my country, and despite all its limitations I would never want to live elsewhere.") Thus the question: Does an artist stop being an artist when it it is a crime for him to make art? This Is Not a Film is the answer. The answer is NO.

Or rather: of course not. Though its very existence is defiance incarnate, This Is Not a Film, which Panahi shot and edited along with documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, has the lightest of touches. And amazingly, though it documents a day in Panahi's life after he has been stripped of his rights and profession, as he anticipates years of imprisonment, it is a comedy.

As should be expected, it is a comedy in which doleful notes are repeatedly struck and that is suffused with melancholy. If this description evokes one of history's premier dramatists in particular, it's no accident -- the unnamed screenplay featuring Maryam, rejected for production by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance even before Panahi's conviction, is based on a brief, early story by Anton Chekhov: "From the Diary of a Young Girl" (rendered in the picture's English subtitles as "A Girl's Notes").

No accident? Of the three movies from Muslim countries at this year's New York Film Festival, Chekhov is an explicit and significant influence on two. Five days before This Is Not a Film made its U.S. debut at the event, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, written and directed by Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan, had its American premiere. A vaguely absurdist police-cum-pathologist procedural, it marks off the Chekhovian hitlist with rare precision. Acute behavioral observations? Chekh. Bursts of unexpected, wry humor? Chekh. Glimmers of the transcendent? Chekh, Chekh, Chekh. Most of all, it is Chekhovian in the way Westerners have been trained to admire the Russian master: Chekhov the Portentous.

Ceylan does the Chekhov so painstakingly that one Gotham festivalgoer, without evident prior knowledge, raised his name during a post-screening Q&A and asked the director if any links were intentional. Chekh, mate. Ceylan averred that his screenplay was in fact replete with direct quotes from his exemplar. Arts practitioners once appropriated humbly; thanks to postmodernism, now they want a pat on the back for it.

Though Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is full of fleeting pleasures, it bores to no deep point and its final small Big Moment is staged, almost perversely, as if to minimize its potential for emotional effect. Ceylan's evident failure is that he has misread Chekhov's taste for understatement as thematic restraint, confused the poignant psychological stasis of many of Chekhov's characters with dramatic inertia. But important matters are invariably at stake in Chekhov's work. Consequential events are foreshadowed, momentum toward them builds, they occur -- even if, often, just offstage -- and their impact reverberates. Sure, Chekhov was Chekhovian; he also knew the value of telling a good story, for which a fateful tone is meager substitute. So we apprehend the equation: Chekhov minus dramatic thrust plus lots of pregnant gazes equals two-and-half hours of tedium...and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.

TINAFMaryamsRoom.jpgPanahi understands much more about Chekhov, and storytelling. "From the Diary of a Young Girl" is all of 400 words -- short words; it takes about a minute to read. In that span, it takes two major dramatic turns (yes, two more than Once Upon a Time in Anatolia). The art school and the parental detention are Panahi's own additions to Chekov's tale of romance, imagination, sibling rivalry, and duplicity; they would seem to be ideal complements, means with which to expand and deepen the narrative without obscuring the intention and spirit of the original. "Would seem" because it is impossible to truly tell in the absence of an actual, realized movie -- Panahi's prime focus in This Is Not a Film. In the midst of his solo enactment of a scene involving Maryam and her grandmother, whose lines he delivers (admittedly flat) amid detailed explanations of staging and camera angles, he interrupts himself in frustration and despair: "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?"

His point, we soon learn, is much broader than the obvious inadequacy of verbal recitation to restate the cinematic moment. What is really of interest to Panahi -- an interest, it becomes clear, that is central to his achievements as a director -- is the opportunity filmmaking affords to capture the unpredictable and serendipitous. As an example, he shows the greatest scene from his greatest film, Crimson Gold: the amateur actor Hossain Emadeddin expresses his character's humiliation and rage in ways that go far beyond anything the director could have asked for or anticipated. "There's no way I could ever have told him to do that," he says, and then rephrases his earlier point, "It's not possible to tell the film without the film."

Next he shows the sublime moment from The Circle. (It's exceptional to encounter an artist whose retrospective judgment of his work's virtues is so acute.) A young woman runs down a curving corridor whose external glass wall is rhythmically, ceaselessly punctuated by dark risers -- an unfathomable visual and physical fusion of liberation and entrapment. Here, he explains, the location determined the filmmaking in a way he could never have imagined when he conceived the story or even before he arrived on the day of the shoot with cast and crew at hand. These are object reminders to any filmmaker: openness to the moment and humility in respect to the collaborative craft (by contrast to the blindered conceit of the "auteur") yield superior art.

So where does that get you? It was revealed this week that an appeals court has upheld Panahi's six-year prison sentence. One last appeal, to Iran's Supreme Court, remains. Mirtahmasb, his collaborator, was one of six documentary filmmakers arrested last month on charges of working with the BBC; he remains in jail. As the title tells, this is not a film. This is real life.

Mirtahmasb, who appears on camera only briefly, though he often speaks from offscreen, expresses what may be taken as the picture's keynote. And, as a result of an odd, entirely unforeseeable accident, that note strikes with happy force -- at least for English-speaking, or more precisely, English-reading audiences. About to leave Panahi's apartment for the evening, Mirtahmasb sets down his host's large film camera on the kitchen table at which they have been shooting. Panahi, ready to record Mirtahmasb's departure with his iPhone, indicates that the professional unit can be turned off, as there will be no one to handle it. Mirtahmasb demurs: "No, but it matters that the camera stays on."

Or rather: "No, but it matters that the camera stays ON." That's how it appears in the English subtitles. There's no easy way to explain why. Mirtahmasb might apply some slight stress here, but there are much more emphatically enunciated words and phrases throughout that don't receive the all-caps treatment. Surely, no order came from the filmmakers to render it thus -- they had enough worries smuggling their work out of Iran via a cake-enbaked flash drive. Could some fervent translator have introduced it as a deliberate ideological gesture? Most likely, it's the product of a lone transcriber whose name will never be revealed, someone experienced with the sort of technical manuals where ON and OFF are routinely capitalized, especially where switches are concerned, someone who just felt it was right. Regardless, the result is perfect. Especially when Mirtahmasb, who clearly realizes the implications of what he has just said, recasts it as a creed: "It's important that the cameras stay ON."

As Mirtahmasb prepares to descend by elevator, another person arrives on it, in This Is Not a Film's grand moment of serendipity: the unexpected arrival is a university student, brother of the small apartment building's porter, who is away on vacation. There by chance to cover for his sibling, he becomes the star of the picture's final 15 minutes. (If any viewer is so cynical as to suspect his timely appearance was actually plotted, then the naturalism with which it is carried off outshines luck's deft employment by several factors of brilliance.) He and Panahi discuss how to scrape together a living while pursuing a degree without a future, the arrests in the director's apartment the previous year -- the young man was downstairs visiting that very evening -- as well as the proper procedure for collecting household trash. The replacement porter even delivers the movie's final sentence: a statement that underscores the peril, and hints at the horror, of Panahi's situation. But well before that he utters a line whose evocative power goes deeper still. He steps into the kitchen and shouts out his discovery: "Mr. Panahi, your camera is ON!"

This Is Not a Film's distribution rights in the United States and the United Kingdom have been acquired by Palisades Tartan. No commercial release date has been announced for either territory. That's okay. This allows time to watch Panahi's five previous features -- seven and a half hours that could hardly be better spent and that will enrich the experience of watching this sweet hell of a film.

Dan Geist is a critic and senior editor at Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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