The Reel Deal
THIS IS NOT A FILM
A Reel Deal Film Review
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“IRAN SO FAR AWAY”
My two favorite films of 2011 were both directed by Iranian filmmakers–Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation–the latter of which went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. And yes, surprisingly, last month’s Academy Awards marked the first time Iran won the award. For years, because of our cultural differences, because of political animosity, and because of how the Oscar nominating process is set up (with films being nominated by their country), America has consistently overlooked Iran as an important national cinema. With America’s relations with Iran as strained as ever, an American appreciation of their culture seemed still so far away–yet the Oscars, thankfully, proved a moment for Iranian culture to shine.
It’s taken America a while, but we’re starting to finally recognize the artistic renaissance that’s been going on in Iranian cinema for the last few decades (despite rampant censorship from the government and the filmmakers themselves being under less than ideal geopolitical circumstances). To be honest, it’s a huge step forward that these films are even being released in America, and even more amazing that they’ve been able to find a decent-sized audience, considering 22 years ago, when Abbas Kiarostami finished his masterpiece Close-Up, it was never even seen Stateside. It finally premiered at Film Forum in 1999, almost two decades too late.
The first (and hopefully not last) Iranian film released in the US this year is Jafar Pahani and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s This Is Not A Film, which was smuggled out of Iran in early 2011, in time to premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. And when I say smuggled out I do mean smuggled out: the only way it got out of Iran and to Cannes was in a USB drive hidden in a cake.
Like many of the great Iranian films–Close-Up being the most obvious example–this new film blurs the line between fiction and reality, merging narrative film techniques with documentary style. Co-director Mirtahmasb said of the film: “I refer to Godard, who said if you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality. And this film is the conjunction of two ways of doing films–I’m a documentary filmmaker, Jafar is a fiction filmmaker. It was an improvisation.” The movie, also like much of the best of Iranian cinema, becomes as much about itself as it is about its so-called “plot.” In fact, I’m not even sure This Is Not A Film has a plot in any conventional sense. So if you think a film is defined by its story, perhaps Pahani and Mirtahmasb are correct, this is not a film.
So then what happens in the plotless This Is Not A Film? Not much on the surface: a director (Pahani) banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government wanders around his apartment retelling the story of an unproduced script, feeding his daughter’s pet iguana, talking on the phone with lawyers about his impending incarceration, watching protestors’ fireworks from his balcony and analyzing scenes from his past films. It may sound devoid of much of the narrative trajectory we expect from a film, but this movie’s load is anything but light. Despite its short length, it highlights a political situation in obscured but exacting detail, gets at a story that has plenty of emotional resonance without actually telling it, explores a plethora of really deep philosophical ideas and utilizes an iguana as a comic foil better than any film since Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. This Is Not A Film is a cinematic essay commenting on protest in the face of oppression, on the artistic need to create, and on the medium of film itself, among other things–and all in just 76 minutes.
So who needs conventional things like plot? As countless filmmakers have shown, from Chris Marker to Terrence Malick to (Pahani’s own mentor) Abbas Kiarostami, the cinema can get along just fine without it.
Of course, it’s not that this is not a film, but that this is not just a film, it’s so much more: the fulfillment of an artist’s need to create even in the most adverse of situations, a form of political and creative defiance, a criminal act, a day’s diary entry, a playful essay, and a piece of truly inventive artistry. And yet if I say This Is Not A Film is not just a film, I belittle the possibilities of what the film medium could and should be. If only more films were this inventive, this interesting and, ultimately, this successful in their goals, it’d be obvious that This Is Not A Film, after all, is a film, and, against all odds, a damned good one at that. This is just a film, an absolutely exquisite film.
And please Iran, though you’re so far away, please send more films like this our way. Even if they have to come in cakes.
This Is Not A Film is a film directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi, and written by Jafar Panahi. It also stars Jafar Panahi. It’s been months since Jafar Panahi, stuck in jail, has been awaiting a verdict by the appeals court. By depicting a day in his life, Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb try to portray the deprivations looming in contemporary Iranian cinema.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Palisades Tartan
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film Still from This Is Not A Film, Photography Courtesy of Palisades Tartan