In film nist is a bracing “attempt” at something. It is “not a film” because it must not be a film. Its principal maker, Jafar Panahi, has been arrested and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and banned from making films or even writing screenplays for 20 years. His crimes? Panahi protested the results of Iran’s 2009 presidential election, where, you will recall, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received appreciably more votes in certain towns and villages than there were voting-age inhabitants. Panahi, a mild-mannered middle-aged man, was therefore deemed a threat to the internal security of the Islamic Republic. His films were deemed suspect, potentially dangerous.
Panahi is awaiting the verdict of an appeals court, which he hopes will overturn the Soviet-type sentence that has been imposed on him. In the meantime, he is under house arrest, restricted to his apartment. We hear his attorney, on the telephone, tell him that Iranian appeals courts almost never overturn prison sentences, but he might get the ban reduced. (After the film’s time-frame, the appeals court affirmed the original court’s verdict.)
Panahi’s film that is not a film takes place on one day—as it happens, the day before the Iranian New Year’s: a time of celebration and expectancy ironically suited to Panahi’s own non-celebratory expectancy as he awaits the appeals court’s decision. Panahi confines his film that is not a film to just this day, from morning to night: a single day to suit the single setting of his house.
Panahi films himself. He begins by showing himself eating a meager breakfast—perhaps to conjure a witty premonition of prison sustenance; perhaps a measure of his anxiety as he awaits word of his legal fate. The camera is fixed. Panahi’s repeated application of jam to the infinitesimally thin flatbread and his equally deadpan chewing reminded me of scenes of compulsive kitchen activity, including eating, in films by Belgian-born Chantal Äkerman, such as her first masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), where the protagonist eventually implodes. Panahi, for the moment, is all alone—except for voices on the telephone that we overhear. If you will allow a slight stretch, these “imprisoned” voices, like the fixed camera and Panahi’s repetitive action (that is, eating breakfast), effectively project his present and possibly future confinement, as well as his concern and anxiety over this.
Panahi’s lone companion is his daughter’s pet iguana, which hurts him with its claws as he otherwise pensively sits on the livingroom couch. Very briefly, another animal darts in: a dog that a neighbor wants him to take care of for two hours; but the dog darts back out at the sight of the reptile. The neighbor’s offscreen voice somehow connects with the phone voices, reinforcing the sense of Panahi’s confinement. Panahi, however, finally scores a visible human companion when a friend, assistant director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, arrives armed with a digital camera to help shoot Panahi’s film that is not a film.
Panahi discusses the structural foundation of his filmmaking, reviews clips from his films, considers issues of freedom and self-determination that arise in his films (including the unexpected choices made by nonprofessional actors), and—as another substitute for actually making a film—reads aloud from an unfilmed script of his that was officially forbidden to be filmed, in its present form, prior to his current legal problems. The script involves a young woman whose father locks her in her room to keep her from enrolling in college, and who searches for a way out of her confinement. Identifying with this character, Panahi marks off a rectangle on the carpet to suggest the borders of her confinement. But, whereas the two men earlier mused whether “telling” a film is tantamount to “making” a film, Panahi now breaks off, almost in disgust, because “telling a film is not making a film.” His strategies for coping with the ban imposed on him have collapsed.
Finally, after Mirtahmasb’s departure, Panahi engages in conversation with a college student who is filling in for the highrise apartment building’s usual trash collector. Panahi accompanies the young man down the elevator as he proceeds with his job: for the filmmaker, a descent into Hell that culminates in a stunning long-shot of a fire burning outside the building’s limits: a bonfire, I presume, that is part of the New Year’s Eve communal celebration from which Panahi is cut off.
Smuggled out of Iran, In film nist has won the Muhr Asia-Africa Award for documentary at Dubai, the UNESCO Award in the same category at the Sofia International Film Festival, and, from the National Society of Film Critics in the U.S., the best experimental film prize.
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