Iranian documentarian takes on artistic censorship

San Francisco Film Society/Courtesy

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From the shackles of an oppressive ideology breaks “This is Not a Film,” which virtually redefines the meaning of artistic freedom.

In 2010, Iranian director Jafar Panahi was given a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking. This film, or not-a-film, begins with Panahi on house arrest, awaiting that sentence. In a flash-drive hidden inside a birthday cake, the film was smuggled from Iran to the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered in 2011.

Panahi is no household name, but he has long been revered by directors like Abbas Kiarostami (“Certified Copy”) and Olivier Assayas (“Carlos”) who have rallied for his release from prison. Since the 1980s, Panahi has worked under the neorealist tradition and a rigid formalism which typify the current face of Iranian cinema. But his work hasn’t reached a broad audience. An Iranian film like this year’s “A Separation,” which won the best foreign language Oscar, burrowed its way into the west because of universal themes and empathic humanism. Something as slight as “This is Not a Film” — which offers all of those things, but in a deconstructionist framework — will not have such a bright future, especially if the Iranian government doesn’t lighten up. The charges of propagandistic dissent levied upon Panahi are symptomatic of the nation’s controversial attempts to control its artists. Director Mohammad Rasoulof, whose “Goodbye” will screen at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, was also handed the same sentence.

The guerrilla-like approach of “This is Not a Film” makes for 77 extremely intimate minutes spent with Panahi as he listlessly awaits his verdict and his imminent artistic doom. Panahi, evidently, decided that if he couldn’t make a film, he wouldn’t, which is where his latest and possibly final effort gets its self-contradicting title. Beyond the title’s political commitment, this really is an anti-film, as Panahi completely obliterates narrative conventions. When it begins, long self-shot takes depict him eating, feeding his daughter’s pet iguana answering phone calls that pour in from the world outside. A small, gentle man whose reticence belies his stentorian ideology, Panahi miraculously extrapolates compelling cinema from these private episodes. His tedium is our aesthetic satisfaction.

But the film suddenly goes meta. The speakerphone conversations are revealed to be Panahi acting, shot with the help of documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Panahi expresses anxiety about his not-a-film, critiquing the lighting, the “set” — his home in Tehran — and his own performance. He reconstructs for Mirtahmasb his last unmade screenplay by making a mini-set outlined with yellow tape on his living room floor, building the scaffold of a film-within-a-film. “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” Panahi asks himself, debunking his entire project. For all these complicated metacinematic structures, the felicity of the rapport between Panahi and Mirtahmasb gives the film a certain lightness that makes the more heady stuff somehow less encumbering. Panahi enables us to witness the creative practice incarnate, in real-time.

Out of his physical and spiritual captivity, Panahi is able to create a manifesto of cinema as a process of self-revision. I am not encouraging oppression in any form, but if this is what emerges from a crushed soul, we ought to have more not-a-films than real ones. Whatever that means.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic

“This is Not a Film” screens through Thursday at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema (1746 Post Street, San Francisco)