Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jafar Panahi
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Persian/Farsi, with English subtitles
Running Time: 75
Date: 05/20/2011

This Is Not a Film (2012)

4 Stars (out of 4)

House Arresting

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anyone that follows world cinema knows about the fate of Jafar Panahi, who is one of the top Iranian directors. Prosecuted for "assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic," he received a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on directing movies. He is also unable to leave the country, or speak with press.

But lo and behold, here is a new film by Panahi, more or less. It was recorded on video over the course of one day -- at some point in 2010 -- with the help of co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who was an assistant on many of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's films). As it begins, Panahi is under house arrest and awaiting the outcome of his appeal on his sentence. He eats breakfast, talks to his lawyer on the phone, and then decides to read out loud from a script he had been hoping to make.

He lays out tape on the floor to show the walls of a girl's bedroom. He screens clips from DVDs of his films The Circle (2001) and Crimson Gold (2004) to demonstrate moments in which happy accidents occurred. He begins to get excited, but then suddenly realizes the futility of it all and walks away. Many Iranian films depend on sudden shifts like this, especially Panahi's own The Mirror (1997), so we don't know if this is a performance or a genuine moment, but the lack of definition itself is as moving as the moment itself.

(Just an aside, but I found it interesting that Panahi has a DVD of Rodrigo Cort├ęs underrated, single-set movie Buried on view in his collection.)

The day wears on. It appears to be the day of the Fireworks Wednesday festival in Iran, which occurs on the last Wednesday of the year. Many of Panahi's friends and family are stuck in traffic, and he speaks with some of them by phone. He begins filming his documentarian with his phone camera. A young man collecting the garbage appears and Panahi begins interviewing him (he's only filling in for someone else). He follows the young man to the back door of the building for a melancholy, but perfect ending.

Mirtahmasb and Panahi are careful to stick to the rules of Panahi's ban, or at least weave slyly between them. In truth, Panahi does not actually write or direct anything, and does not touch the professional camera (only his phone camera). Nevertheless, the movie reportedly had to be smuggled out of Iran and to the Cannes Film Festival in a flash drive baked inside of a cake.

It's a true rebel film, full of outrage and defiance, but it's also an intensely personal and moving portrait of a trapped, tragic figure, just like many of Panahi's own best characters (most literally the girls at the soccer game in Offside). Like many of the best films from Iran, it defies and questions the rules of filmmaking. It may not be as polished or as narratively satisfying -- or as timeless -- as Panahi's other films, but it's a thinking, feeling essay film, constantly alive and endlessly courageous.

(Note: The film plays April 6 through 12 at the SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco.)

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