Monday, February 27, 2012

THIS IS NOT A FILM -- or so Iran's Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb explain it

As you may have surmised by now, TrustMovies' favorite way of seeing a film is simply to know as little about it as possible and then plop down in his seat to watch. Many, if not most, good movies work fine this way because what you need to know to appreciate the movie is usually built into the film itself. Not so with THIS IS NOT A FILM, opening this week in New York City and next week in the Los Angeles area. Even though some upfront information is given at the beginning and end of the movie, I can't imagine a film-goer -- even one who appreciates foreign, arthouse, independent and/or experimental movies -- stumbling into this film, made by Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and being able to appreciate it fully without having known, and long enough for it to register and sink in, the history and background of this (not a) film, as well as the prior work of Mr. Panahi.

In 2010, Panahi (at left)-- a multi-award-winning Iranian filmmaker (The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside) was given a six-year prison sentence plus a ban of 20 years from making films and having interviews with foreign press, due to his open support of the opposition party during Iran's 2009 election. This sparked an immediate and ongoing protest from the worldwide filmmaking community, although who did (or more to the point, did not) rally to Panahi's support inside Iran caused some surprise and name-calling. (Trust me, it's much easier to support this particular cause when you're outside Iran, a country not noted for its freedom-of-speech, either during the pre-fundamentalist era or today.)

For some time, Mr. Panahi has been under what appears to be the Iranian version of "house arrest," and This Is Not a Film -- shot surreptitiously on a small DV camera by Panahi's friend and collaborator, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (shown at right) and on an iPhone by Panahi himself -- endeavors to show us some of the filmmaker's daily life. And a not uninteresting life it is. First of all, take a gander at the gorgeous apartment in which he lives. This is upper-middle-class by any standard, including, I would say, the pet iguana, below, that provides some exotica and humor. (Iguana sales should spike nicely in any cities where the movie will be shown.)

During the film, we get an interesting crash course in some of Panahi's earlier films, and learn some of his filmmaking tips (how someone new to acting often invents wonderful things; how a wisely chosen location can, in a sense, direct itself). Along the way friends and relatives call and Panahi talks to his lawyer, learning that his case is not proceeding very well. Another friend (Mirtahmasb, now also banned from filmmaking) appears, and Panahi sets out to tell him the story he wants to film (about a young girl locked into her room by her religious parents), marking off the perimeters of the imagined set on his beautiful Persian rug. "You take a shot of me," requests his co-director/cameraman in the middle of things, "in case I'm arrested."

Once or twice, the filmmaker seems to be on the brink of giving in to despair, but he holds back. Finally, when a young man appears at the apartment door -- he's a temporary replacement for the regular janitor -- Panahi seizes the opportunity to interview him with the DV camera. On the building's elevator, as the young man goes from floor to floor collecting trash, Panahi talks to him about life, work, school and options. You can feel the liberation that the filmmaker experiences, just being able to communicate and ply his trade again. These are lovely moments, made all the richer by our understanding of the director's plight. And then the end credits -- particularly humorous and ironic -- roll. The finished film was smuggled out of Iran and into France in a cake, just in time for submission to Cannes, where it had its world premiere.

Only 74 minutes long, This Is Not a Film is certainly not a film like any other you'll have seen. In its circumspect, circumscribed manner, it manages to be a smart, plucky defense of art threatened by the state, as well as an implied message to the rest of the world's filmmakers: Use your freedom.  The (not a) film opens, this Wednesday, February 29, at Film Forum in New York City. On March 2, it will open in the Los Angeles area, at Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Encino Town Center; and Pasadena Playhouse 7.  But sorry, folk, no personal appearances by the filmmakers this time around.

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