The creation of art is an act of cartography: it charts unknown territory, creating living, breathing atlases of worlds that can only be accessed by their singular authors. So if artistry is an act of genesis, it must have its counterforce—erasure, destruction, silence, suppression—which takes shape under the guise of censorship. Every artist’s nemesis, censorship—whether political, social, or even self-inflicted—amounts to an unnatural death inflicted upon a creature thriving in its fertile infancy. So it seems contradictory at first glance to ponder the (non-)production circumstances of This Is Not a Film, the 2011 Iranian documentary film. Officially directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb—and unofficially by Jafar Panahi—This Is Not a Film “turns censorship into great art,” according to IndieWire. Following a harsh legislative decision in 2010 which essentially banned Panahi from filmmaking for 20 years after he was nebulously convicted of conspiring against the state, he and Mirtahmasb set out to turn Panahi’s sentence inside out, obeying the letter of the law in order to implicitly denounce its spirit.
An Artist Silenced
This Is Not a Film was made after Panahi’s stay in a Tehran prison and during a mandated house arrest. In addition to being barred from both filmmaking and giving interviews to the press, he was sentenced to six years in prison. He’s now in a torturous limbo called “the execution of the verdict,” during which he can be convicted and sent back to prison by the Iranian government at virtually any time. As a result of his house arrest, This Is Not a Film is confined in setting, if not necessarily in scope: only at the end does Panahi dare venture outside his home’s four walls, and even then he’s accompanied by the anxious warnings of a sympathetic bystander.
Censorship and totalitarianism provide the impetus for This Is Not a Film, but Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s “project” is about so much more. Though Panahi’s films have typically been less cerebral than some of his countrymen’s (particularly those of Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf), there’s always been a bit of self-reflexivity coursing through his work. Indeed, modern Iranian cinema has made a habit of melding groundbreaking formal innovation with socially impassioned humanism, creating one of the most singular and vital cinematic communities in the world.
Panahi’s meta-cinematic streak is on full display in This Is Not a Film. Barred by his government from making the project he wanted to pursue (about an ambitious young girl whose conservative family won’t allow her to accept the college scholarship she’s been offered), the director opts for a work-in-progress surrogate: he uses masking tape to block out locations and sets on his apartment’s carpet; he shows us pictures of the actress he had cast in the lead; and he reads from his own screenplay, apologizing for not adopting unique tones of voice for different characters. These preparations would seem to violate his 20-year banishment from directing, but his very point is that this pre-production charade does not constitute film directing: it is only when the cameras are rolling, on set or on location with an army of collaborators, subject to unforeseen circumstances and fortuitous mistakes, that the shape of a movie finally begins to reveal itself. According to Panahi, the film “co-directs” itself, shaped just as much by accident as by the director’s guiding hand.
There’s a lot of palpable sadness, and occasionally bitterness, in Panahi’s demeanor. This is tragically understandable. But there’s also a lot of humor, fleeting hope, and most of all an awed respect for the creative process. Bereft of a film camera, a set, a cast and crew, Panahi and Mirtahmasb wield an iPhone and a digital camera to create, to bear witness, in any way possible. As Mirtahmasb repeatedly tells Panahi, in what might be the movie’s motto: “It’s important that the cameras stay on.” Therein lies an implicit celebration of the participatory nature of art in the digital age: DVDs and cell phones used to create a powerful visual document, not to mention the USB drive (hidden inside of a cake) used to smuggle the finished project out of Iran and into the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. Just as Iranian dissenters could utilize the Internet to unite and foment activism (witness the outpouring of international support following the country’s controversial presidential election in 2009), directors can confront the system using a small digital camera and underground screenings (or postings on YouTube) to escape the restrictive eye of the regime.
This may be This Is Not a Film’s most inspiring theme: linking political activism to creative expression. One creates communal dissent, the other creates a mediated response to the world we live in, but it’s all an act of human will and spirit, a genesis in response to ironhanded regimes’ negation and oppression. It’s no coincidence that much of the action in This Is Not a Film takes place during “Fireworks Wednesday,” a collective outpouring of anti-government dissent in which the people of Tehran ignite fireworks in order to express their outrage at the current regime. If This Is Not a Film acts as an impassioned rebuttal to the regime’s draconian tactics, then each explosion we see and hear serves a similar purpose—a burst of liberating energy that defies the government with spirited hope rather than with dour pessimism.
A History of Courage
The stringent tactics of the Iranian government have loomed over Panahi’s career from the beginning. While the regime has traditionally sought to suppress dissent by making its artists well aware that critical viewpoints may have punitive repercussions, Panahi has not softened his agitation in the least. He has repeatedly said that he won’t allow the censors to cut a single frame out of any one of his films—part of the reason why most of his movies have been banned from theatrical distribution in his home country. While other standouts on the Iranian art-cinema scene (such as Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi, whose A Separation has garnered overwhelming acclaim from both Western and Iranian critics and film organizations) convey their sociopolitical commentary in more implicit ways, Panahi does not hide the fact that he’s speaking to and about Iran’s impoverished and disenfranchised.
His feature debut, The White Balloon (1995), about a headstrong young girl who struggles to buy a lucky goldfish, smuggles themes of feminism and class discrepancy into what appears to be an inspirational children’s film. In Iran, the film played exclusively in theaters devoted to children’s cinema, while overseas it won rave reviews and a Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was Iran’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the 1996 Academy Awards, but the Iranian government asked the Academy to withdraw it from competition as diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran began to worsen. The Academy refused. In an alarming precursor of things to come, the Iranian government then banned Panahi from journeying to the Sundance Film Festival or giving phone interviews to the American press to support The White Balloon.
As a child growing up in Mianeh, an Azerbaijani suburb of Tehran, Panahi would sneak off to the movie theater, hiding among the aisles from his disapproving father. Later, he would return home and reenact scenes for his four sisters, who were unable to leave the family home. By the time he was 12, he had gotten hold of an 8mm camera and began experimenting with filmmaking, inspired particularly by a neighborhood screening of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The legacy of De Sica and Italian neo-realism may be most prevalent in The Circle (2000), possibly Panahi’s most politically direct film and an example of the unique Iranian neo-realism that he helped to usher in. A carefully structured social drama criticizing Iran’s treatment of women, The Circle ends bleakly and unsparingly, with the film’s ensemble of protagonists imprisoned in a Tehran jail. (Again, the prescience is unnerving; the parallels between Panahi’s themes and his current plight are disheartening.) The Circle deftly equates literal imprisonment with metaphorical social imprisonment, as the film’s female characters are perpetually trapped in an oppressive patriarchy that instigates the vicious cycle of the title. He and Mirtahmasb achieve a similar feat with This Is Not a Film, paralleling Panahi’s house arrest with the figurative imprisonment of censorship: boxing in artists by dictating what they can—and cannot—address in their creative expression. The theme of imprisonment, literal or figurative, reappears in many of Panahi’s films, most tellingly in the hypothetical project that he discusses in This Is Not a Film—which begs the question of how much of it is an unrehearsed documentary and how much is staged and scripted to powerfully convey Panahi’s own situation.
Panahi’s follow-up to The Circle, Crimson Gold (2003), was written by his erstwhile mentor in the film industry, Abbas Kiarostami. A fascinating middle ground between the two directors’ styles, Crimson Gold literalizes the latent violence that lingered beneath The Circle: the film centers around a desperate crime borne out of the class animosity and social injustices that the main character bears silent witness to during his rounds as a pizza delivery man. Given the movie’s bleakness and palpable anger. It’s hardly surprising, though no less tragic, that the Iranian Ministry of Culture banned Crimson Gold from domestic theaters.
Panahi’s Offside (2006) is almost the diametric opposite: a rousing, optimistic plea for equality about a group of women who disguise themselves as men in order to attend the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. (Women are barred entry from soccer stadiums in Iran; indeed, he based the story on his own daughter’s inability to accompany him to a game.) No didactic pessimist, the director’s social commentary has always had at least a faint glimmer of impassioned hope, a strain of optimism that courses through Offside. Exhilaratingly, the movie ends among street celebrations after Iran’s win against Bahrain: the sparklers and fireworks create a mood of expectant jubilation, as the group of women, in a small yet significant triumph, is allowed to revel with the crowds filling the streets. His patriotism is the most dedicated sort: caring so much about your homeland that you’d do anything it takes to change it. This fact is lost on the Iranian censors (who have banned his last four features), but it’s also what makes Panahi stay in Tehran and challenge his censors instead of covertly leaving the country and making films elsewhere with greater freedom.
Which brings us back to the question: can censorship create great art? Can an oppressive system foster creative vitality, sowing the seeds of liberation even while it rules with an iron fist? According to Iranian film critic and documentarian Jamsheed Akrami, numerous Iranian directors have claimed that the absurd strictures of censorship have forced them to be more creative—though they quickly follow this by explaining that they don’t mean to condone or shrug off censorship. Had Panahi not been imprisoned and censored by his country’s autocrats, maybe he would have been able to make the film-within-a-film that he prepares and blocks out on his apartment’s carpet in This Is Not a Film. It is, in every manner of speaking, a cinema of urgency, born out of an artist’s need to create even when the tools of creativity have been taken away.
This Is Not a Film sheds some interesting light on Salman Rushdie’s “On Censorship,” a lecture recently transcribed and published by the New Yorker. Rushdie, of course, knows the subject uncomfortably well. Following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author on Radio Tehran, essentially calling for his execution due to alleged blasphemy against Islam. In communities throughout the world, bookstores were firebombed and copies of the book burned. Rushdie doesn’t mention this affair in the lecture he recently gave: his lecture is, instead, a call to arms to artists worldwide, a reminder that singular, powerful, thought-provoking art should contain an element of rebellion and agitation.
Rushdie warns us that censored art necessarily transforms the artist’s original vision—that the artwork is then inextricable from the “crimes” that it has allegedly committed. In other words, he says, “Censorship intrudes on art.” In the case of This Is Not a Film, though, maybe it’s better to say that art intrudes on censorship: a cruel and unjust punishment is upturned in order to emphasize the vitality of individual expression—of looking at the world that surrounds us and responding intuitively to its tragedy and its beauty, its joy and its barbarism. And of course This Is Not a Film is not entirely about censorship. Its greatness lies in its spirited evocation of the artistic process, as it reminds us of why we, as a collective humanity, strive to make art in the first place.
It’s fairly clear that This Is Not a Film posits ongoing artistic creation as the most valuable weapon against oppression and censorship; even a brief glance at the synopsis would suggest as much. What’s great about Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s project is how it wields creativity and how it confronts censorship—through implication rather than diatribe, by disdaining the phantom of censorship so thoroughly that it doesn’t even feel the need to speak its name.
“At its very best,” Rushdie says at the close of his lecture, “[Art is] a revolution.” Maybe this is what This Is Not a Film is about: as Fireworks Wednesday rages outside of Panahi’s windows, the non-film decides to celebrate revolution (artistic, political, social, individual) rather than to denounce censorship, acknowledging hope rather than pain. If This Is Not a Film is not a film, maybe it’s a revolution, waged on iPhone and digital camera from an apartment in Tehran.