Best of the Decade: Jafar Panahi

This Is Not a Film

By Hugh Gibson

What would Harry Lime say about today? It feels like the time of the Borgias, but without the Renaissance. Oppression, trauma, and war are omnipresent—and that’s just on my list of the decade’s top films, which includes reflections on the scars left by conflicts past (Christian Petzold’s Transit, 2018; Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises, 2013; Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War, 2017), portraits of traumatized soldiers (Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War, 2014; Valeska Grisebach’s Western, 2017; Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, 2012), and works that bear witness to atrocities (Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, 2019; Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, 2012,and The Look of Silence, 2014). Even a film that didn’t lose its sense of humour amidst the madness—Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson’s sly behind-the-scenes look at the war-film machine, Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (2015)—was still marked by it, as were the Grand Guignol genre-film horrors of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011). Makes you appreciate brotherly love and the cuckoo clock.

Like The Act of Killing, which Oppenheimer and his collaborators made under constant threat of reprisal, Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (2011)—made while Panahi was under house arrest in his Tehran apartment, after serving a three-month prison sentence and receiving a six-year ban from travel and a 20-year prohibition on filmmaking and giving interviews—is a work that, by dint of its very existence, defies censorship and oppression. (Also like The Act of Killing, which credits “Anonymous” as a co-director and has a mostly unidentified crew, the credits of Panahi’s film are left blank; its unnamed co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was later arrested while en route to present the film at TIFF.) In the film, Panahi describes the project that led to his and his collaborator Mohammad Rasoulof’s arrest—the story of a girl punished with forcible confinement for pursuing her interest in the arts—and also outlines the scenarios of several other scripts that were rejected by censors over the years. “Eighty percent of an Iranian filmmaker’s time is spent getting around censorship,” Panahi has stated, and even then the problems are just beginning: all of his films since The Mirror (1997) are banned in Iran.

In one scene, while describing the ill-fated production, Panahi asks plaintively, “If you can tell a film, why make a film?” Indeed, under such conditions, why would anyone make a film? Why persist? “If hairdressers have nothing to do, they cut each other’s hair,” he says in another scene to justify his recording of his housebound existence—an explanation that belies the many complexities that reveal themselves as this deceptively casual film proceeds. Everything in This Is Not a Film is symbolic and precisely selected, from what is seen—e.g., the filmmaker’s bed (a taboo for Iranian films), a DVD copy of the tellingly titled Buried (2010), the (illegal) foreign news channels on Panahi’s television screen, the defiant Fireworks Wednesday holiday that Panahi glimpses from the doorway of his building—to what is left unseen, notably Panahi’s wife and daughter (their absence, perhaps, part of his ongoing refusal to show women veiled in their own homes, as required by censors). Culminating in a stunning final sequence, shot in a single long take, This Is Not a Film is not simply admirable due to the circumstances of its making, but brilliantly conceived and executed, full of artistry, delicacy, wit, and an intricate play with form and reality—that is, a Panahi film, and the first of four he completed this past decade, all of them made under the threat of imprisonment.

I spent five years making a documentary, The Stairs, about drug use and sex work in Toronto’s Regent Park area. A key consideration in both the making and, later, the exhibition of the film was to challenge the ways we typically view people in dehumanized circumstances, and to recognize underrepresented voices. Along the way, Panahi’s films impacted me in many different ways. I would make instinctive, on-the-fly decisions during a shoot, then realize my sources of inspiration weeks later in the edit suite. I also relate to the profound sense of anger and frustration that permeates his work, which I feel most deeply when remembering the many people I met while making the film who have gone too soon. Most of all, however, I connect to the warmth, caring, and humanity of his cinema. The film scholar Jamsheed Akrami has said that Panahi “makes films to record history,” and that his “chief weapons in filmmaking and activism are his imagination and his camera.” Those words resonate for my own practice. Whereas I enjoy complete freedom of expression, Panahi’s work, and his courageous actions, serve as a compelling answer to the question he himself asked: Why make a film?