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For Your Consideration: 'This Is Not a Film'

Iranian film can bring us glimpses of life in that country, the struggles of people living under a fundamentalist regime, as in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation last year. Sadly, where the government used to tread lightly with filmmakers, allowing them a certain autonomy, more daring directors have run afoul of censorship efforts in the last few years. At least two filmmakers, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, have ended up in jail. Two years ago, Jafar Panahi was found guilty of having created anti-regime propaganda and sentenced to six years in prison and twenty years of being forbidden from making any movies. He managed to get out of jail on bail, but he remains under house arrest and is restricted from giving media interviews.

Panahi, whose main subject has been the plight of people stifled under Iranian law, could hardly have been expected to remain silent for long. He shot this new film, cleverly named in imitation of Magritte's infamous painting The Betrayal of Images (the significance of Magritte's title is worth noting), entirely in his apartment while under house arrest, with at least some footage captured on his iPhone. The film, stored on a USB flash drive, was smuggled out of Iran and made it to France in time to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival last May. The conceit is that Panahi invites a friend, documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to his apartment -- what they are creating together is both footage for a documentary Mirtahmasb planned (about the films some directors in Iran are not being allowed to make) and in some way a realization of the film, never finished, that earned Panahi his sentence. With a sense of the Kafkaesque absurdity of his situation, Panahi notes that the judgment forbade him to make a film, give interviews, or write screenplays, but it said nothing that would prohibit him from reading from the screenplay and acting it out. When he tells Mirtahmasb to cut the shot at one point, Mirtahmasb takes offense, protesting that he is the director now, not Panahi. Not only is this not a film, Panahi is not a director.

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A good portion of the film validates its title's claim, à la Magritte, that this is indeed not a film. Furthermore, it is not much of a documentary. We watch Panahi eat breakfast, make a phone call to his lawyer about the ongoing appeal of his sentence, listen to phone messages from his wife, feed his daughter's pet iguana, watch television reports (including the stunning video of the Japanese tsunamis), listen to the fireworks being shot off in honor of Nowruz (the Persian New Year, which the ayatollahs have tried, quite unsuccessfully, to suppress). Either the shots were captured all'improviso, without much planning, or they were carefully planned to appear so. Much comes together by serendipity, and it is striking alternately in its beauty and in its banality. At one point, there is an amazing shot of a crane, which by chance is set up at just the perfect height, equal with Panahi's high-rise apartment. The boom swings by, at a distance of what seems like inches from the balcony where the director, upset by the humiliation of having to act out his screenplay rather than being able to film it, smokes a cigarette. The coolness of one so close to being destroyed by an implacable force is not without parallels either. Whimsical glimpses of Igi, the iguana, punctuate the film, as the creature climbs up Panahi or the furniture. The film closes with a tantalizing shot of the outdoors, as Panahi follows a neighbor down the elevator, collecting garbage from various apartments. The world is waiting out there, but Panahi is forced to carry his camera and film it from a distance.

This film opens today in Washington, exclusively at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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