Last year I asked someone in Hollywood about a film they had just seen. “The picture quality was horrible, the sound was awful, etc.” Perhaps I am paraphrasing, but my response was this: how was the story?
The evolution of technology now provides unlimited tools for filmmakers, however I feel that the great young cinematic minds of today are more concerned with style rather than substance. I refer curious many film enthusiasts to Martin Scorsese’s documentary My Voyage To Italy in which he discusses the influence of Italian Neorealism and the impact that films made on him as an adolescent.
So what do you do when you want to make a film but are not allowed to? Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested on March 1, 2010 and sent to the infamous Evin Prison, the same place where my fellow Concordia alum, Roxana Saberi, was held the previous year. Panahi was prosecuted for crimes against national security and given a six year sentence along with a 20 year ban on directing, writing screenplays and interviews. While on house arrest Panahi made the documentary This Is Not A Film in his own Tehran home. It was eventually smuggled out of Iran in a cake and brought to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival as a last-minute submission.
The film opens with Panahi eating at a table as he talks to a friend, filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, on the phone. “I have a few ideas and don’t tell anyone you are coming over.” Panahi talks to his lawyer, feeds his pet Iguana and not much is happening. Then an incredible moment takes place: Panahi says, “I need to take off my cast” and tells the story of a young girl in one of his films who was fed up with the acting process, took off her fake cast and demanded to be let off the bus in which they were filming.
Panahi wants to tell a story and it is about the film that he was not allowed to make. Mirtahmasb says that he should just talk and not worry about the directing since he’s not allowed to direct anyway. This is not a film, right? Panahi tells his story of a young girl who wants to go to college, but is not granted permission by her parents. She becomes suicidal and sits in her bedroom while contemplating her broken life. Panahi tapes off an area his apartment and explains the setting of his film. He shows video of location scouting, a picture of his actress and speaks with such a passion that is tough to watch knowing he can’t make this film. In one of the most heart-breaking moments of the documentary, Panahi says “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” He rips out all the tape in frustration.
The rest of the film is a slice of life seen through Panahi’s own eyes and in the end, literally. A neighbor drops off her dog so she can attend “Fireworks Friday” in the street only Panahi calls her back minutes later after constant barking. The earthquake in Japan is seen on television and Panahi surfs the Internet only to learn he cannot visit some of his favorite websites. Clips of Panahi’s films are shown as he discusses his personal theories on film and tells an amazing story of an amateur actor who improvises without Panahi’s direction (reminiscent of amateur Italian Neorealist actors). Mirtahmasb explains he must go however tells Panahi to always keep the camera rolling, which Panahi does in the final captivating minutes as both an HD camera and iPhone are used.