Iranian director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from filmmaking for 20 years in December 2010 for political reasons. He can’t leave the country and he can’t work; he can only wait in his (admittedly luxurious) apartment for the final verdict pending appeal. This Is Not a Film begins with a shot of Panahi eating breakfast and calling who turns out to be the documentary filmmaker Mojitaba Mirtahmasb to tell him to come over and hear some ideas for a film.
Panahi gets dressed, listens to a voicemail message from his wife, and calls his attorney about his case (no hope of reversal in a political case like his, only of a commuted penalty). He talks to the camera about films and about film proposals the government denied. Then Panahi stages a telling of his latest completed script, about a girl whose parents have locked her in the house alone to prevent her from enrolling at the university to study arts. Panahi’s performance is powerful in the context of apparent futility (a futility continuously undermined and exploited by the not-performance and not-film). Panahi breaks down; after composing himself (wink wink), he says something like, “If we could simply tell films, why would we bother to make them?”
I read Panahi’s rhetorical question as an indictment of pure conceptualism. This Is Not a Film is more than the concept of shooting a film about not being able to make films in the confines of an apartment building with an iPhone and a digital camera. The execution of the work is essential as a political act (the film was smuggled out of the country to France in a cake), as well as for the excess of the unplanned. Not that concepts don’t have unexpected consequences, but the realization of the work and the act of viewing it are indispensable because of their complication of intentions.
An example: Panahi’s daughter’s pet iguana interrupts the mise-en-scène with the force of a… a metaphor won’t do here. Panahi feeds him leaves; later he crawls on Panahi’s chest; we see him again climbing up the back of a bookshelf. The iguana is an Other, neither reducible to the Same nor the first term of a series of additions (when a dog arrives with a neighbor, perhaps he is S0 to the 0 of the human; the iguana, however, remains 1). Igi is “contained” in the apartment but ontologically and epistemologically uncontainable. Speculation: Alter sapiens, he is the site of the ethical.
Perhaps in perpendicular, Panahi refuses to admit that the end of his freedom is the end of ways out. He exits censorship by responding to it. In the press material, Panahi’s director’s comment begins “This Is Not a Film?/ “Our problems are all our assets.” The productive ambiguity of English: Are our problems all assets, or is there actually no difference between problems and assets? The impossibility of quarantine, of dividing problems from solutions or constraints from assets — oppression is the site of the political: resistance (against the politics of Iran or increasingly, dare I say it, America, where censorship has been superseded through its inversion).
Written on my iPhone