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Critical Consensus: Jamsheed Akrami and Godfrey Cheshire Discuss Jafar Panahi’s ‘This Is Not A Film’

Critical Consensus: Jamsheed Akrami and Godfrey Cheshire Discuss Jafar Panahi's 'This Is Not A Film'

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new films with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Iranian-born film critic and documentarian Jamsheed Akrami and Iranian cinema expert Godfrey Cheshire talk about Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film,” which opens at New York’s Film Forum today.

You were both involved in organizing a 2010 petition to secure Jafar Panahi’s release from prison. As valuable as it was to gather the signatures of American filmmakers like Steven Spielberg to speak out against Panahi’s imprisonment, Panahi’s own complaints featured in “This is Not a Film” about the conditions of his oppression literally put a face on the situation as nothing else can. The alleged movie — if we can get away with calling it that — was rumored to have been smuggled into Cannes this year inside a cake. Since then, it has continued to gain prominence on the world stage, playing numerous film festivals and garnering loads of media attention. At this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, I noticed a truck carrying a poster with the tagline “Where’s Jafar Panahi? Never Forget” emblazoned on its side.

Jamsheed, when you consider how much publicity “This is Not a Film” has received, do you think Panahi’s coy method of making a movie without actually making a movie has backfired? Or is this exactly the effect he wants “This is Not a Film” to have? And can we read the film as a cry for help or is it more assertive than that?

JAMSHEED AKRAMI: I see Panahi’s film as an act of protest by a dissident filmmaker. The Islamic government has done everything it can to silence him over the past decade and he just refuses to be silent. All the ploys at the government’s disposal seem to have paled so far against Panahi’s imagination, courage, and strong sense of survival as a filmmaker. He even ridicules the filmmaking ban imposed on him by using the title of “This is Not a Film” and calling himself just an actor in the film, not the filmmaker. In Iran, the word filmmaker is used to mostly refer to directors. Actors are known as just actors and not filmmakers. So he is using a linguistic loophole to claim that he is not really making a film here. He is just an actor in a non-film!

He loves the publicity the film is generating. While he is not begging for anybody’s help, he definitely appreciates any international support he can get. He sees himself as a member of the international community of filmmakers and expects to see solidarity from this community. While he enjoys strong domestic support as well, in a politically repressive society there aren’t many open channels where that support can be displayed.

In the film, we see Panahi at home awaiting trial, passing his time by expressing his frustrations to the camera. Godfrey, to what extent do you think this work is in tune with Panahi’s more straightforward narrative films? Despite its documentary qualities and the moral imperatives behind them, do you see any stylistic links to his oeuvre? Or has Panahi’s current situation led him into an entirely new stage of creative expression?

GODFREY CHESHIRE: It should be recalled that Panahi started out working with Abbas Kiarostami, who is generally credited with introducing the element of self-reflexiveness, movies that concern moviemaking and its meaning, to Iranian cinema. Indeed the last movie on which Panahi served as Kiarostami’s assistant was “Through the Olive Trees,” which fictionalized the making of Kiarostami’s previous film, “And Life Goes On,” which itself concerned a filmmaker. When Panahi began making his own films, he adapted this self-reflexive element as his own in his second feature, “The Mirror.” That film follows a little schoolgirl trying to make her way home through Tehran, but everything changes when the young actress suddenly declares that she’s sick of acting, tears off her costume and runs away. Panahi appears in the film as himself. So “This Is Not a Film” is the second film in which Panahi has played Panahi, although in the earlier film he played himself as director while in this case he’s appearing “only” (wink, wink) as an actor, one whom we see watching the scene just mentioned from “The Mirror” as well as scenes from his film “The Circle” and “Crimson Gold.”
I think there’s also a connection to his earlier work in terms of this film’s tone. Panahi’s first two films, “The White Balloon” and “The Mirror,” are very light in tone; they’re essentially comedies. The next two films, “The Circle” and “Crimson Gold,” are much darker and tend toward tragedy. His fifth film, “Offside,” is a drama with strong comedic and satiric elements. “This Is Not a Film” is most akin to the latter film in my view. It is serious, but also very witty. I think people who only know its subject, a filmmaker dealing with a harsh prison sentence, would be surprised at how funny and jocular much of it is.

More generally, the film touches on a couple of elements that Iranian cinema is known for: using non-actors, and blurring the line between fiction and documentary. I bring these up especially in relation to the film’s final scene, which I think is really wonderful. The scene takes place on Fireworks Wednesday, which is a political statement in itself. Like the Persian New Year, which follows it and was the setting of “The White Balloon,” Fireworks Wednesday is a pre-Islamic holiday which is why some Islamic authorities are uncomfortable with it; indeed Panahi shows us a news clip saying the Ayatollah Khamenei has denounced the holiday. What happens in the scene is that, while most of Tehran is out setting off fireworks and celebrating, a young guy comes by Panahi’s apartment to collect the trash, and Panahi picks up his camera and follows him on his rounds, listening as he talks about his life (he is a student but has to take crummy jobs like this to get by). The scene is amusing as well as revealing about various aspects of Iranian life (as such, it makes the point that this “non-film” is ultimately about not just Panahi but that society) and yet at some point you have to wonder: Is this documentary, as it seems, or fiction? Is the guy a real person or an actor? Does Panahi simply encounter this scene or has he scripted it? The fact that you really can’t tell is one of the many clever and ingenious things about the film.

JA: Just to add to Godfrey’s reference to Kiarostami-Panahi collaborations, Panahi also appeared very briefly as himself in both “Through the Olive Trees” and “Taste of Cherry.” He also worked as an assistant on Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us,” but left before the completion of the shooting. And of course, Kiarostami wrote the scripts for Panahi’s “The White Balloon” and “Crimson Gold.” In terms of thematic and stylistic consistencies, the biggest departure I see here is Panahi’s confinement to an indoor setting. He has always avoided indoor scenes due to restrictions caused by the mandatory use of Hijab, the Islamic dress code, which forces women to cover themselves from the male gaze and only expose their hair to the immediate members of their families.

But the Islamic censors also insist that female characters should cover their hair even in the privacy of their homes as protection against the male cast and crew, and later the male audiences! Due to this restriction, some Iranian filmmakers, including Panahi, who don’t want to stage unrealistic and fabricated scenes in their films (like showing a veiled woman having dinner with her husband and children or a woman sleeping in bed in her headscarf) try to avoid shooting indoor scenes. We hear Panahi pointing out in “This Is Not a Film” how he did all his first five films in public places.

But in this film he is forced to work at home. He is used to doing films set in short periods of time. His first film “The White Balloon” unfolded in real time and “Offside” covered a few hours before and after a soccer match. But he is not used to shooting an entire film in an apartment, and I am sure he didn’t make this film as a tribute to Hitchcock’s “Rope.” However, he still manages to avoid doing any unrealistic scenes. That’s why we don’t see his wife at home with him and she is introduced only through a phone call. (Panahi had already sent his daughter to Paris.) If they were home, he would have had to show them with exposed hair. You might argue since he knew the film was not going to be screened in Iran, showing unveiled women shouldn’t have been a problem. But I think Panahi had a higher purpose. He is a socially committed filmmaker and the lack of women’s presence in this film can be interpreted as a protest against the gender discrimination in Iran. He even refuses to show the female neighbor who comes to his door to leave her dog with him. The female lawyer is also only heard on the phone. What a testament to the invisibility of women in a male-dominated theocracy!

I agree with Godfrey that the film as a political statement, and he is right that the choice of Fireworks Wednesday as the “diary day” only amplifies this point. It’s a slap in the face of the Islamic Republic’s authorities who despise this day and have called it a paganist ritual. The more the mullahs denounce the day, the more people embrace it as a day of rage and resistance against the regime. It’s also a great choice cinematically, because it provides a dramatic backdrop for the film.

Godfrey’s point about the ambiguity associated with the film’s narrative–that you can’t quite tell what’s real or staged–takes on an especially provocative dimension when you consider the conditions under which it was made. Panahi has been banned from making movies for 20 years, and yet he has managed to make a challenging piece of cinema within those constraints. It’s as if he has been empowered by censorship to make an entirely fresh work of art. But this raises the question of the movie’s tone. Jamsheed, would you say that Panahi is expressing a sense of hopelessness about the prospects of making films in Iran? Or is the act of defiance represented by “This Is Not a Film” a kind of cinematic victory dance? And since you know him, maybe you can speculate: How likely is it that we’ll hear from Panahi in the near future?

JA: I have heard many Iranian filmmakers claiming that the restrictions have sometimes made them more creative. They are quick to add they don’t mean to make a case for censorship, but they cite examples of how in some particular situations they couldn’t do something in a certain way due to the codes but ended up doing it in a more creative way. So, maybe the restrictions can empower a filmmaker, as you have pointed out. I know Panahi has always shown a disdain for censorship. The reason most of his films haven’t been shown in Iran is his dogged refusal to cut “even a single frame” out of any of them to receive a screening permit.

Panahi is not just a filmmaker. He is also an activist. The more they restrict him, the more defiant he gets. He could have signed an apology and left the prison soon after he was arrested. He refused to do so and stayed imprisoned for months. They practically had to kick him out of the prison when he started a hunger strike.

His sadness in the film is genuine. As a filmmaker in the prime of his career, he is heartbroken that he cannot get out and make films anymore. He is also quite reluctant to leave the country. It’s not impossible to flee the country in a clandestine manner, a la Yilmaz Guney in the mid-’80s. But he is staying and claiming his birthrights.

Whether we’ll hear again from him in the near future depends on the political climate in Iran. The country is breathing heavily in anticipation of some sort of crisis. The domestic factions are fighting, and a war with Israel or the United States is by no means inconceivable. Panahi’s fate can change at any time.

When he was in prison, his jailers threatened to harm his daughter. One of the very first things he did when he got of the prison was to send his daughter abroad to Paris. So I guess he is ready to keep fighting. He didn’t leave.

GC: I would add just a couple of things to Jamsheed’s comments. One thing that’s very unusual about Panahi is that his career effectively began on the international stage. Most Iranian directors make one or more films that get released in Iran, then maybe begin to get into foreign festivals and gradually build an international reputation. But Panahi’s first film, “The White Balloon,” had not been released in Iran when it opened at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, won the Camera d’Or (the biggest prize won by an Iranian film to that time), then became the Iranian cinema’s first breakthrough at Western art houses. It made him famous and a lot of money in a very short time (and that resulted in a certain amount of jealousy toward him in Iran). It’s my impression that his global profile, which now includes many international accolades, perhaps emboldened Panahi in speaking out politically, and all the international attention to his case may have indeed helped him in some ways. But it has also left him in a strange position. He evidently doesn’t want to leave Iran; he wants to live and work there. So what does he do now? From a creative standpoint, he can’t make an endless number of sequels to “This Is Not a Film” (what’s the second one going to be called: “This Is Not a Film Either, I Promise”!?), even if the authorities would allow that.

As Jamsheed suggests, his fate will be tied to the ever-changing and very unpredictable situation in Iran. Speaking of which, I want to mention something that struck me about “This Is Not a Film.” When I made a number of trips to Iran in 1997-2002, there were no iPhones, light digital cameras, flat-screen TVs and so on; few people I knew were on the internet, had cell phones or even personal computers. The Iran we see in Panahi’s film is full of all of these things (Panahi’s apartment is like a high-tech Plato’s Cave!) and the effect is paradoxical. The fact that the technology allows Panahi to turn himself into a one-man movie studio, something that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, underscores his isolation. But just as such technology and social media played such a role in the Arab Spring, its presence here leaves me with hopes that it will help with democratization, decentralization and liberalizing forces both within Iran and between Iran and the world.

As an American critic following Iranian cinema from abroad, how much do you think an audience needs to understand the political and social issues surrounding “This Is Not a Film” in order to grasp its point?

I would say, not much. The film is pretty self-explanatory. Any Western filmgoer who knows who Panahi is and the basic premise will get the film easily. Actually I think people might go in not knowing too much about the situation in Iran and come out wanting to know more. Which would be a good thing. I also think people will be surprised at the odd circumstances in which a repressive regime can ban a filmmaker from working for 20 years and then somehow allow him to make and export a “non-film” about that very plight. Sound weird and contradictory? Well, that’s Iran.

Speaking of weird and contradictory, let’s close by touching briefly on the recent Oscar win of “A Separation.” Its triumph last weekend arrived after the movie had already taken home countless other awards over the past year. Director Asghar Farhadi doesn’t portray every facet of Iranian society in a positive light; in fact, the movie begins with one character talking about how she wants to escape it. But the movie was selected by the country as its official submission for the Academy Award and Farhadi is apparently celebrated in his country. So far, at least, he’s having an easier time making movies than Panahi.
Godfrey, in your Film Comment review of “A Separation,” you point out that oppression is “the backdrop, not the subject.” That’s one way of seeing it. Another way, to quote Jamsheed in a recent article for ABC News, is that the movie “shows a society in moral turmoil, where lying to get by has become a sort of modus operandi.”

I realize these two perspectives aren’t exactly contradictory, so here’s what I’d like to know from both of you: Is there a thematic link between “This is Not a Film” and “A Separation”? And, if so, why is Farhadi having an easier time than Panahi?

JA: The two films belong to different genres. One is a personal statement by a filmmaker living in artistic exile in a house that doubles as a set. The other is a socially conscious drama bursting at the seams under the weight of a myriad of societal problems it covers. Thematically, the two films can be linked by the lies and half-truths that are both part of their narratives and shade their identity as cultural products.

Take a look at the titles: “This Is Not a Film” is obviously a film, and a very good one at that. The original title of “A Separation” is “The Separation of Nader from Simin,” whereas in the film it’s Simin who wants to leave Nader. Both titles, each in its own sly way, attempt to subvert the truth.  

Panahi conveniently excludes the women of his life from his one-day diary and refuses to show any other woman he encounters in the film. What is he trying to hide by omission? 

Lying or concealing the truth has been a major thematic thread in Farhadi’s films. His characters lie to survive. We need to look into the fabric of the social context in which they live to realize why they lie. Their social conditions force them to lie. By reflecting these conditions, Farhadi makes a political statement without making a political statement. The social context here is a by-product of a repressive government.

Farhadi does not condemn lying. In an authoritarian country, people learn to lie as a reaction to repression. How could a filmmaker condemn lying when he himself is forced to resort to distortion?  As is the case with almost all Iranian films, many of the interior scenes that show women veiled are simply fabricated. The Iranian women don’t cover their hair in the privacy of their homes. But the censorship codes require them to do so in the films, which forces Iranian filmmakers to either create unreal scenes or try to find a way to circumvent the codes.

In an interview I did with Farhadi for my new documentary “A Cinema of Discontent,” he told me about how he tried to show women in “A Separation” mostly in situations where they were entering or leaving the house, thus justifying the wearing of the headscarf at home. But there are still plenty of scenes showing women veiled in situations where they normally wouldn’t cover their hair.

The two filmmakers have different personalities. They subscribe to the same political and artistic aspirations and fight on the same front against the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic, but each fights in his own way. Panahi is both a filmmaker and a political activist. He’s been uncompromising in his dealings with the authorities. He has always said he wouldn’t let the censors remove even one frame of his films, which is why his films haven’t been shown in Iran.

While he is just as principled and committed as a filmmaker, Farhadi is not overtly political in his films and doesn’t mind negotiating with the censors. Halfway through shooting “A Separation,” he attended an awards show to receive a prize for [his previous film] “About Elly” in Tehran. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned the names of fellow filmmakers who had been either forced into exile or banned from making films. The following day the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance revoked his production permit and didn’t allow him to resume the shooting until he apologized for his remarks. Had he not apologized, we wouldn’t have “A Separation” today. The incident more than supports another point Farhadi made in his interview with me: “The Iranian cinema has not made his best films.”  

A final question to ponder on: How many great films has Iranian cinema never made because people like Panahi have refused to compromise?

GC:  “A Separation” and “This Is Not a Film” certainly belong to different genres in that the former is a drama, the latter a first-person documentary or faux-doc. But I also think they’re different in that Panahi’s film is overtly political whereas Farhadi’s is not. I don’t think this makes one better than the other; it’s just a difference. I must add that I don’t agree with the assumption of some Americans that Iranian films ought to be political; we don’t expect that of American or European films.

One thing this distinction means, though, is that where Panahi’s film will never be released in Iran, Farhadi’s was made to pass muster with the censors (it also went into release and became a big hit in Iran). I don’t think the latter fact is at all a negative, even if it entails certain compromises that are different than the compromises say Americans filmmakers typically face. As we’ve mentioned, many observers feel that the content restrictions Iranian filmmakers confront have helped stimulate their creativity and inventiveness.

Panahi’s film is somewhat anomalous in the way his whole career has been. As I mentioned, he was an “international” director from the time his career began. Most of his films have never been released in Iran. With “The Circle,” his third feature and first overly political film, he apparently made the decision that he was making “export-only” films in order to be politically forthright. Most Iranian filmmakers simply don’t have the luxury (if you want to call it that) of making that decision. And it’s probably good that they don’t. It’s hard to imagine that Iran would have the very vital film culture it has if most of its filmmakers were making movies only for foreign viewers.
With “A Separation,” I think Jamsheed sees a strong political dimension to the film and chooses to emphasize that. But I like the fact that this is not by any means a dominant aspect of the film. The story is very human and Farhadi has said that its essential elements could take place in virtually any country, even if their taking place where they do gives us a certain perspective on Iran. Farhadi also said that he didn’t want to have “A Separation” be “one of those Iranian films that feel like they have to explain Iran to the world,” and I think one of the film’s great strengths is that it tells a universal story, which is why I said the Iranian political elements are more the backdrop than the subject of that story.

Before we end this very interesting discussion, I want to ask if Jamsheed can enlighten us regarding Panahi’s current legal and personal situation. Jamsheed and I are both friends with Mahmoud Kalari, the great cinematographer who shot “A Separation,” “Offside” and other important films. I’d had the impression that Panahi was going to be sent to prison for a six-year sentence, but when I saw Kalari in January he gave me to understand that Panahi was on a kind of probation and might not go to prison. I also assumed he was under house arrest as he seems to be in “This Is Not a Film.” But Kalari told a funny story of Abbas Kiarostami saying, “Everyone thinks Panahi is in prison, but every time I go to a party — there’s Panahi!” Also, is there any chance he might be able to go on working, whether making films or non-films?

JA: I have been also explaining to people that Panahi has been out of jail for a while and is not under house arrest, either. I called his house 10 minutes ago, and he wasn’t home! But I don’t quite share Mahmoud Kalari’s optimism that Panahi will never be sent back to prison. Legally, his appeal has been turned down, and he is at a stage called “the execution of the verdict,” which means he can be arrested and sent back to jail at the government’s discretion.
I think his fate will be determined by the political climate in Iran. A few months ago, several young Iranian documentary makers were imprisoned because their films had been shown on BBC Persian TV. Some of the films had been shown months and years earlier, but the government arrested them only after BBC Persian showed a documentary about Ayatollah Khamenei, which the regime apparently did not appreciate. They couldn’t do much to punish BBC. So they decided to arrest the Iranian filmmakers as an act of retribution against BBC! All the poor filmmakers had done was sell their films to BBC, but the Islamic government charged them with spying for BBC. Incidentally, Panahi’s co-director Mojtaba Mir Tahmasb was also imprisoned for a couple of months. But he is free now, awaiting trial.
A similar situation could develop for Panahi. If the regime feels threatened, he can be sent back to jail. I hope I am wrong, but his ordeal bears a bit of resemblance to Yilmaz Guney of four or five decades ago. Whenever the Turkish military was staging a coup, his name was on their perennial list of “to be arrested and jailed.” But just like Guney, Panahi’s spirit and his will to continue to voice himself despite all the bans will not be broken by a tyrannical regime. We will continue to hear from him.


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