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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  This is not a Film


Not directed by Jafar Panahi (2011)

Towards the end of 2010 Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director, was sentenced to six years imprisonment and banned from making films for 20 years. He’d upset the regime with films such as The Circle and Crimson Gold, with their unflinching, honest take on gender and class in Iran, but unlike other dissenting directors, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he stayed in the country.

While awaiting an appeal Panahi was held under house arrest at his rather swish flat in a Tehran high-rise. Bored and frustrated he phoned his friend, documentary-maker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and told him to come round - and bring his camera. If he’s not allowed to make a film, then he’ll tell a film.

The result is This is not a Film, a 75-minute documentary based on a day in the life of the director. It was famously smuggled out of Tehran and into the Cannes Film Festival on a USB stick hidden inside a birthday cake, the old file-in-cake trick in reverse.

The idea is to read his latest unmade screenplay from his living room carpet, marked out as an imaginary set with yellow sticky-tape. (There’s a hint here of a dig at Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, shot on a sparsely furnished sound stage. Panahi is cleverer than he lets on.)

But he’s not far in when he leaps up, exasperated, declaring “If you can tell a film, why make a film?” He illustrates his point with clips from Crimson Gold and The Circle, showing how there are moments when it’s not the director but the actors and the location which seem to ‘direct’ the film taking it to places he could never have imagined.

So while on one level This is not a Film stands as a mischievous protest against the Iranian regime, it grows into something much more – an interrogation of the nature of film itself.

The integrity of what might have been Panahi’s film, his purpose, is disrupted by contingency. He shares the flat with Igi the iguana, a kind of scaly domestic cat, which repeatedly, surreally, draws the camera’s gaze.

Is this a reference to the hallucinatory iguana in the Nicholas Cage remake of Bad Lieutenant? This iguana is real, in that it’s the Panahi family pet, but in the context of the ‘film’ it’s an unruly interloper, no better, no more meaningful, than Cage’s hallucination.

A second pet, a brattish hound called Mickey which a neighbour attempts to leave in Panahi’s care, is accepted, then rejected, as though the ‘film’ is testing and protecting its own narrative boundaries, struggling not to totally submit to the anarchy of the everyday.

Interrupted by explosions from the streets outside, where the people of Iran are letting off new year fireworks in defiance of the law, Panahi turns to watch from the balcony. Is this the real world after all? The political world of repression and resistance?

In the closing scenes, in a boyish fit of naughtiness, he follows the bin-man down in the lift and out into the yard. Amid the din, like the din of battle, a fire is blazing beyond the gate. The film ends. If it ever was a film.

April 11, 2012

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