Notes from the LFF: Pardé/Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Iran, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2013

A man (Kambuzia Partovi) arrives at a house with a holdall. He locks the door, closes the curtains, blacks out his windows and then pulls out of the holdall a dog. We discover that he is a writer and from the television that owning dogs is illegal – and that many dogs are being executed when found.

A knock on the door, a couple enters who claim to be fleeing the police. The man (Hadi Saeedi) leaves, the woman (Maryam Moqadam) seems to come and go – as if materialising and dematerialising within the house at different times.

The house is raided, the writer and his dog hide. Then, as the writer leaves frame during one shot, Jafar Panahi walks into frame – and begins to fix up his house, the window to which has been smashed.

The woman and the writer discuss the fact that Panahi is forgetting them – and that they must make themselves enter his thoughts in order to remain alive.

A second woman (Azadeh Torabi) comes looking for her sister, Melika, who is the woman who arrived during the night and who is talking to the writer. Panahi, however, tells the second woman that he has not seen Melika, nor her brother, the man who came with her.

Workers come and go – and we get the impression that we cannot tell who is imagined and who is real in this movie that seems to be a defiant treatise on the creative process.

Jafar Panahi’s second movie made since his ban on filmmaking for 20 years (after In Film Nist/This is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011), Closed Curtain similarly revels in interiors that are in fact an ‘externalisation’ of the imagination, and fictional characters that are the contents of Panahi’s head.

As the film progresses and as the seeming-fictional characters inside Panahi’s head decide that they do not wish to be forgotten, or die, as a result of Panahi not remembering them, we get the sense that filmmaking is almost an ethical duty.

That is, these people that the filmmaker – which we can expand anyone creative – has in head (and if we don’t like the idea of ‘people’ living ‘inside our head’, then we can simply call them ‘ideas’) have a life – and one owes it to them, as if they were real, to keep them alive. For, the life of the mind is as important as the physical realm in which our flesh circulates.

Indeed, Panahi’s film makes it clear that we cannot tell these apart: if Melika were simply imagined, why would her sister talk to Panahi? And if the writer were merely imagined, then why would he get into Panahi’s car at the film’s end and drive off with him with his dog (leaving Melika, sadly, in the house)?

Panahi contemplates suicide in the film – walking into the ocean and never coming back (shades of Darbereye Elly/About Elly, Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France, 2009). We see this happening, but then Panahi is back in the house. In a film, what is imagined and what is real are inseparable – and the power of film is to make us question precisely what is real, to encourage us to think.

And even though the Panahi character laments the fact that he cannot be as creative as he wants, ultimately, he must be defiant and carry on creating, since the life of the mind, those ideas that live in our mind, are as much us as our bodies – and we must realise these ideas by making films (the French verb for directing a film is réaliser).

The liminal setting of the seaside is important here: the ocean is our unconscious, with its unseen depths. And as much as Panahi (and Melika in her own way) are lured by the ocean towards death, one also gets the sense that all characters that we see, perhaps we ourselves, have come from the depths of the ocean, the unconscious, where ideas turn and flow in unseen fashion.

Images within images: Panahi filming on his iPhone, a camera crew walking into a shot – replaying a moment earlier when the writer lets in Melika and her brother. As Chuang Tzu says:

Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.

What is dream? What is reality? The time of the body and the time of the mind become indistinguishable. As, arguably, do Panahi’s films and those of his contemporaries.

I am thinking about oblique references in Closed Curtain to the work of Abbas Kiarostami, who recently has become a migrant filmmaker working in Italy and Japan.

In particular, Closed Curtain seems to speak to Five Dedicated to Ozu (Iran/Japan/France, 2003), a lyrical contemplation of the sea – driftwood on the waves, ducks walking along the beach, humans meeting by the seaside, with a brief lightning flash reminiscent of ABC Africa (Iran, 2001).

I do not think Panahi is offering an implicit critique of Kiarostami here, though potentially he could be. More, I get the impression that movies are memories, even those of/by other people, and that they constitute who we are. As is said in the film, in the end, life is memories.

Lyrical, melancholy but, as mentioned, ultimately defiant, Closed Curtain is another fascinating work by one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers.

Notes from the LFF: In film nist/This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

On 20 December 2010, filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested in Iran and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and banned from making films for 20 years.

He is not alone: plenty of other filmmakers and artists have been placed under arrest in the last 12 months and more in Iran – including this film’s co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was arrested since the completion of this project.

Before seeing This is Not a Film at this year’s London Film Festival, organiser Sandra Hebron read aloud a letter signed by various Iranian filmmakers in exile, including the whole of the Makhmalbaf family (Mohsen, Samira, Hana, and Mohsen’s wife, Marzieh Meshkini), calling for people worldwide to put pressure on the Iranian government in whatever way they can in order to release Panahi.

His crime? Being critical of the current Iranian regime, which – as per my previous post on Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011) – seemed illegitimately to install itself in power after the 2009 general election.

Being a filmmaker, not least a filmmaker with a global standing, Panahi is a dangerous man: he has the power to influence people, to rouse a sense of injustice in the (already-roused) masses of Iran who are in search of a more democratic society than the one currently on offer. He can also rouse anti-government support beyond Iran’s borders.

Given Panahi’s global standing, and given Iran’s refusal wholly to endorse films that – even if only ambivalently or allegorically – critique Iran’s status quo, it is no surprise that Panahi’s films – like those of many of his fellow filmmakers in Iran – have sought funding from outside of the country, principally Europe (and principally within Europe from France, Germany and the UK).

I am surely not the first to argue this point, but I must say that even if undertaken innocently, there is little to no true innocence with regard to the politics of who funds what films and for what reason. Representation is an awesome and persuasive tool. That is, all films have – or at least one can read into all films – an element of propaganda: incapable as we are of perceiving the whole of reality, consigned as we are only to partial truths, no film will present things as they are. But this does not stop a filmmaker from portraying events/the world as he sees them/it.

For this reason, to stand accused – as Panahi does, according to the letter that Hebron read out – of being an agent for French and British power in Iran seems to overstep the mark as far as his filmmaking is concerned. Panahi is a filmmaker trying to find the means to make the films that mean the most to him; if his funding comes from the UK or France or anywhere, and if that funding comes with few or no conditions with regard to the kind of film that he is supposed to deliver, then Panahi is, or should be free, to work with those funders.

In light of the seemingly stolen election, in light of the evident lack of freedom of speech or filmmaking in Iran, and in light of the documented and murderous brutality of the present Iranian regime towards dissident elements within contemporary Iranian society, it seems that any filmmaker concerned with anything but the most reactionary escapism must give room for elements that are critical of the contemporary regime.

This does not necessarily make Panahi an agent of British or French interests in Iran – even if as a filmmaker his outlook and approach finds favour with foreign (predominantly educated, middle class – i.e. festival) audiences as much if not more than it does with domestic audiences.

Nonetheless, to be denied the right to critique the country in which one lives and which with much probability one loves is a betrayal on the part of that country.

And this is what Panahi has suffered: a betrayal.

If we are to get all up in arms about Jafar Panahi and other filmmakers, we should not limit ourselves simply to their plight. Others have suffered terribly under the current regime, including, for example, Neda Agha Soltan, whose death can be seen on YouTube (but to which I shall not link here). And beyond Neda Agha Soltan, there are many more people who have suffered at the hands of the current Iranian regime. In other words, this is not just about filmmakers. This is about the fate of an entire nation, perhaps even the entire world.

Even if Panahi himself is only one of a multitude of Iranians adversely affected by the current government in Iran, Panahi is still very much to be admired.

For what he has done is to produce a film – playfully, perhaps rightfully, termed a non-film – in spite of the ban that has been imposed upon his creative output. Furthermore, in total defiance he has had that ‘non-film’ distributed globally, including at this year’s London Film Festival.

How did he achieve this? Remarkably, by hiding the film on a Flash drive in a birthday cake – which then found its way out of his apartment block, out of Iran and – first of all – to the Cannes Film Festival, before making its way – among other locations – to London.

Panahi’s non-film is what we might term minimalist in execution: Panahi is under house arrest – pending an appeal on his sentence – in his flat/apartment block in Tehran, and so the majority of the film takes place in the few rooms to which he is (was – is he still?) confined, and it features for its greatest part only Panahi and Mirtahmasb.

The non-film starts with Panahi taking breakfast, talking on his mobile phone, and then missing a family phone call while he is in his bathroom. These moments are comprised of two static shots in which Panahi refuses to recognise the camera.

In other words, the non-film starts almost as though it might be a fiction film as opposed to a documentary – Panahi is acting rather than ‘being himself.’

This fictional feel is broken, however, when Panahi picks up the camera that has been left rolling in his bedroom and carries it through his house: the refusal to recognise the camera’s presence is immediately broken.

Nonetheless, once Mirtahmasb arrives and takes over the filming, Panahi prepares tea and feeds his iguana, Igi, as if the camera were not there.

However, it is when he receives a phone call from his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that Panahi definitively casts off the illusion that this is a film in the conventional sense of the word, thereby taking us into the realm of the non-film.

Gheyrat explains that the ban on filmmaking might well be rescinded by the courts, but that Panahi surely will face some prison time. She then affirms passionately that the ruling against Panahi is not legal, but political. That is, the judiciary is not in charge anymore; Panahi is a plaything of the political powers that be. As such, Iran is no longer a country in which all are equal in the eyes of the law, but a country in which the law is changed according to the whims of politicians.

(Britons: take note. One should not call for ‘special punishments’ for the perpetrators of crimes, for example looting during riots. The crimes committed – damage to property and theft – should be punished according to the law and not, to use Gheyrat’s words, according to ‘current social conditions.’)

This phone call is enough for Panahi to say to Mirtahmasb that he cannot act anymore. Referring to a moment in his own film, Ayneh/The Mirror (Iran, 1997), Panahi does what his child actor, Mina Mohammad Khani, did in that film – and refuses to act. This he calls ‘throwing off the cast’ in reference to how Mina in Mirror refused after a while to wear the cast she had been given and stepped off the bus on which they were filming.

Of course, Mirtahmasb keeps the camera rolling even though Panahi says he is not acting anymore. If this is no longer acting, but if the camera is still recording, what is it that we are seeing now? As per the greatest of Iranian films, and as identified by a host of scholars of Iranian cinema, the line between fiction and reality becomes definitively blurred here – in a fashion that befits the more ‘art house’ branch of Iranian film.

(The argument that Iranian films blur the boundary between fact and fiction has been used persuasively to argue that we should not take Iranian films to be immediate representations of Iranian life. That is, we should not believe everything that we see in Iranian films as being real. In fact, it is an Iranian artistic tradition to blur this boundary. Even though Panahi has made not a film but a non-film, then, its artistic credentials are high, perhaps even beyond question.)

This ambiguity between fiction and reality is only heightened when Panahi tells Mirtahmasb to cut – only for Mirtahmasb to refuse, because Panahi is not entitled to make films and so therefore cannot direct the very film in which he currently is featuring.

(Humour, perhaps surprisingly, but also in a very human fashion, features prominently in This is Not a Film, as hopefully this blog will make clear.)

Not only is the non-film only ambiguously a documentary and/or a fiction, then, but the question concerning whose film/non-film this is also becomes ambiguous. That is, who is the filmmaker here? Panahi or Mirtahmasb? This ambiguity is further heightened during moments in which the camera is simply left rolling with no operator, as happens towards the film’s climax. No one is making this film at such moments; as such, this cannot be a film, since a film needs a maker, no?

Further to complicate matters is Panahi’s ingenious use of mise-en-scène. As Panahi shows to Mirtahmasb on his TV the sequence from The Mirror that Gheyrat’s phone call brought to mind, we have a mise-en-abyme effect whereby there is a film within the non-film that we are watching: if This is Not a Film is not a film, perhaps it is so because films like The Mirror lie within it and not necessarily beyond it. In this way, This is Not a Film is not a film because it has its own reality – such that it contains even other films.

Panahi pauses The Mirror, and Mirtahmasb pans over to him, stood as he is next to a shelf that houses a variety of DVDs. Most of the DVD sleeves are illegible – at least to this viewer – but prominent among those that are legible (to me) is the DVD of Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, Spain/USA/France, 2010).

Buried is about an American truck driver in Iraq, Paul (Ryan Reynolds), who wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin. Practically the whole of Buried is set within the confines of the coffin. To have the DVD of Buried so prominent in the frame, then, is to suggest a parallel between that film and this non-film: Panahi’s house arrest is also akin to some sort of artistic death, as if he, too, were buried alive.

What is more, the way in which Buried functions for some viewers as a film that raises awareness of the complexity of contemporary Iraq and, by extension, the Middle East in general (including Iran), makes of it a truly canny choice. It is contemporary, relatively fresh in the minds of those who have seen it, and politically relevant. Without wishing to over-read what could, after all, be a random detail, the prominent placement of the Buried DVD also suggests Panahi’s desire to send out coded messages about his imprisonment specifically to Western viewers, knowing full well that it is most likely only Western – or at the very least non-Iranian – viewers that will be able to see his film.

If the reader thinks that the above is the over-reading of what is arguably a random detail, then I would respond thus: in fact it does not matter whether the DVD of Buried was prominently placed in frame on purpose or by accident. What is important is that this non-film makes us question this very issue. It is when we are not – and perhaps cannot – be sure about the fabricated nature or otherwise of the images that we are seeing that Panahi’s film works best: is this a film or not?

Panahi then speaks to fellow filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, who tells him that she is trying to rally support for his cause. Panahi discourages her from doing so, repeating the advice of his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that it is perhaps better for him to court the support of foreign artists and Iranian artists in exile than for domestic artists to risk trouble of their own by speaking out against the government’s persecution of Panahi in particular and Iranian filmmakers more generally.

Bani-E’temad replies by saying that too many artists in Iran are living in fear of the present regime and that they must be more defiant. This truly is a bold act of defiance on her part to go on record as saying this.

(Even if Panahi cannot leave his home, his trusty iPhone keeps him in touch with well-wishing supporters. If anyone thought Iran were a backward country – if anyone took a Kiarostami film to be a ‘transparent’ depiction of life in Iran, then they should remember that the protests against the stolen election in 2009 were not for nothing known for their innovative use of Twitter and other social networking tools for their organisation.)

Panahi then decides that he will not make a film, but instead will read a screenplay of a film that he wanted to make before he was placed under house arrest (although, Panahi tells us, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance, the government agency responsible for approving films at script and edit stage in Iran, did not approve this script when he sent it to them).

This script tells the story of Maryam, a young woman from Isfahan who wants to study the arts in Tehran. Her parents, however, refuse to let her go to study and so instead lock her in her room – such that she has little to no contact with the outside world – a kind of young adult version of the two girls in Samira Makhmalbaf’s beautifully poetic Sib/The Apple (Iran/France, 1998), who also are confined to their house and who pass messages over their courtyard wall in order to communicate with the world beyond.

In the style of Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Netherlands/Norway/Finland, 2003), Panahi lays tape down on the carpet in his living room (which also houses a beautiful old Lumière-style cinematograph) in order to show us the borders of the set that he had created for his film about Maryam.

He then talks us through the story. It is as if Panahi here has become Scheherazade, who must make up stories in order to stay alive. That is, like storytelling for Scheherazade, filmmaking is for Panahi not a money-making pastime, but something that he feels compelled to do, something that he must do because he has no option (and on a level that is above and beyond all those who in the blush of youth claim to feel the same about filmmaking – “I don’t think I can lead my life without making films” – and yet who never do it – a chiding I give to myself more or less everyday). Without filmmaking Panahi might as well be buried…

Even without the ideal tools (sets, actors, lights, etc) to make a film, Panahi nonetheless films; he will make a non-film if he cannot make a film. The important thing is to make, to create. This is the gift of the filmmaker and other poets and artists: it is not uniquely the gift of skill in art-making that they have, but the compulsion to give that skill to the world, the inability to stop that need to create from bursting forth. A gift to and a gift from the artist.

At one point, Panahi (a gmail user) checks what is perhaps his own website, or at the very least a website featuring news about him. It is pure propaganda, with the website supposedly reporting that Panahi has turned to political filmmaking recently (by which is meant a turn to pro-government films), as well as stating that he ‘directed’ the recent Berlin Film Festival – even though in reality he was not allowed to travel for it – in February 2011 as in 2010.

This manipulation of the truth, then, may in its own way make artists of the Iranian government in their participation in the falsification of websites such that we cannot tell fact from fiction anymore. But whereas Panahi is intelligent and playful, in this case we can tell that the website in question is spreading downright lies.

What sound like gunshots outside begin to become increasingly common on the soundtrack. Panahi receives a phone call from a friend who offers to pick up his wife and daughter – since many people are taking to the streets, since traffic is heavy, and since the police are beginning to turn out in force.

Whether this is a staged phone call or simply a fictional device weaved into the film, the caller hangs up – saying that he is being pulled over by the police. Minutes later he calls again – safe, but saying that the police had spotted a camera on the passenger seat of his car and had pulled him over to ask him what he was doing with it.

In spite of being asked in my own experience to stop filming by the police on various occasions in public spaces and for a variety of reasons – most of which have seemed to me unreasonable – there is something sinister about the police pulling someone over simply for owning a camera and not for using it.

But as the non-film goes on, we begin to realise that those are not violent protests in the streets, but rather fireworks being set off for Chaharshanbe Suri, or Fireworks Wednesday, which typically takes place in Iran on the Tuesday night before ‘Red Wednesday.’ This takes place on the last Wednesday before Nouruz, which is the Persian New Year.

(This means that – if it were filmed in one day, which in fact seems unlikely – This is Not a Film was filmed on 15 March 2011, which partly tallies with the coverage that we see on television of the Tōhoku earthquake, which took place on 11 March 2011. That said, Panahi seems to react to the earthquake news as if it were brand new to him, which surely it could not have been had four days elapsed since the earthquake. This renders ambiguous the true timeline of this non-film’s making – made only worse when the IMDb credits the film to 2010 – while at the same time showing that even in his confinement, Panahi is once again in touch with the outside world – most of which simply cannot be faked – thanks to the media.)

As is explained in the film, Fireworks Wednesday (which, coincidentally, is the name of a film by the excellent Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi – he also responsible for the recent Darbareye Elly/About Elly (Iran, 2009) and Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/Nader and Simin, A Separation (Iran, 2011)) has been ‘called off’ by the government, and yet people go out and do it anyway – including Panahi’s downstairs neighbour, Shima, who at one point tries to leave with him her yapping dog, Mickey. Amusingly, Panahi ejects Mickey swiftly when it turns out that he and Igi do not get along.

Therefore, the soundtrack to the film sounds something like a war zone, while at the same time being charged with political resistance, as people light fireworks and street fires to celebrate the coming of a new – dare one hope for a better? – year.

This is Not a Film reaches its climax when Panahi starts to film Mirtahmasb on his mobile phone as Mirtahmasb films Panahi with the professional camera. Mirtahmasb quips amusingly – one of various moments of genuine humour in this otherwise anxiety-ridden film – that they are like hairdressers, in that when they run out of people whose hair to cut, they start to cut each other’s.

(Panahi also recounts an amusing story about how he and Bani-E’temad dream of starting up an Idle Filmmakers’ Mobile Kitchen during the periods when they are not making films – simply so that they can meet people.)

Mirtahmasb then says that he needs to leave. He leaves the camera rolling on the kitchen table, explaining to Panahi that ‘it matters that the cameras are ON’ (the upper case ‘ON’ appearing in the subtitles) – perhaps one of the clearest declarations in the film that filming whatever one can will help to make clear the would-be criminal nature of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

And as Panahi goes with Mirtahmasb to the door, there appears a good-looking young man who calls himself Hassan, and who claims that he is filling in for Akbar in emptying the bins, and that he is the brother of Nasrin, Akbar’s pregnant wife.

A strange encounter ensues: Hassan recognises Panahi, even though Panahi does not recognise Hassan. Mirtahmasb leaves, while Panahi questions Hassan about his life.

Oddly, though, Hassan becomes nervous, seemingly evading Panahi’s questions about his jobs (he has various) and his studies – only ever answering in the vaguest of terms: he’s studying the arts, but he provides no details that might make this response plausible.

To a westerner/to me (if not to everyone), there is something strange in this exchange. Hassan’s evasiveness in answering Panahi’s questions leads one to suspect that he is a spy of some sort, sent by the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, which is often referred to as MOIS or VEVAK. And that, seeing Panahi with a camera in his hand, he is about to do Panahi’s appeal case no favours whatsoever.

Furthermore, the sequence is immensely tense in that Panahi, filming Hassan at first with his iPhone and then with the camera that Mirtahmasb has left running in the kitchen, goes with Hassan in the lift. Here the conversation changes to half-charming, half-sinister, in that the now-greater levels of confinement in the lift only add to the claustrophobia of the film.

In addition, Hassan has told Panahi that he was working in the building on the night that the police raided the apartment building to arrest him, his wife, his daughter, and 15 others including filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mehdi Pourmoussa, who was assistant director of Bahman Ghobadi’s underground film, Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).

Why was Hassan there when the police raided Panahi’s place – in a fashion seemingly reminiscent of the party raid that occurs in Talayae sorkh/Crimson Gold (Iran, 2003)? Why does he specifically bring it up now, nearly a year later? The answer to these and other questions is repeatedly forestalled as Hassan takes the lift down level by level – from the 9th floor (Panahi’s) to the basement – stopping at each to check if there is rubbish to pick up.

Perhaps it is nerves on Hassan’s part – being stuck in a lift with a great director who is also filming him (Hassan does amusingly say that he is not looking good enough to be filmed). But there is something sinister about the way Hassan continually begins to explain his version of events on the night of the raid and arrest (which, incidentally, was 1 March 2010) – only to stop, leave the lift to check for rubbish, and then to start again when he returns.

What is more, it is only when Panahi prompts him to ring the neighbours’ doorbells that Hassan begins to do so to check for rubbish. Otherwise, Hassan explains, everyone seems to have forgotten to leave their rubbish out.

When Hassan does begin to ring doorbells, barely anyone answers. Hassan assumes that this must be because everyone is out at Fireworks Wednesday, but the viewer is nonetheless unsure – and this lack of security, which runs throughout this non-film but which is here redefined through the lens of the spy thriller, which – outrageously (at least for me) – seems to have surfaced from nowhere within Panahi’s film, only adds to the tension.

Further elements increase the anxiety: Hassan often steps out on to pitch dark landings that we cannot see – our inability to see enhancing our sense of uncertainty; one floor – the seventh – has raging party music thumping from its door, meaning that the non-film’s soundscape also creates tension.

Hassan and Panahi then reach the second floor, prior to arriving at which Hassan speculates that there will be lots of empty pizza boxes outside the inhabitants’ door. Once again, Hassan reminds us of Hussein (Hossein Emadeddin) of Crimson Gold, who himself is a pizza delivery man and whose sense of dissatisfaction with the world might be similar to Panahi’s in his current predicament.

However, comedy is unpredictably injected here into this prolonged lift sequence, when the door is answered not by pizza-guzzling neighbours but by Shima, whose voice once again we hear (we never see her) as she tries to fob Mickey off on to Hassan for a few hours so that she also can go out to Fireworks Wednesday.

(Hassan accepts – but he will look after Mickey in the lobby after the film has finished.)

The intrusion of comedy does not allow for a release in pressure, however; it in fact only renders us (or perhaps only me) further incapable of working out quite what is going on. Is Hassan a spy of sorts? Is this film – in spite of its ‘ramshackle’/improvised appearance – so well organised that it is only fooling with our expectations? Is this a comedy?

Bizarrely, Hassan tells Shima to try giving the dog to Panahi up on the ninth floor. She says that she has already tried, but that Mickey only survived two seconds up there. Suddenly what could well be a truly innocent conversation becomes once again sinister because the subject of the conversation, Panahi, is recording it. Panahi has now turned spy instead of Hassan. Perhaps Panahi as non-filmmaker is the intrusive one, documenting the strangeness of other people’s lives.

Nonetheless, down the lift goes – further into the darkness of the basement. All the while remaining immensely polite, Hassan then carries the rubbish he has accumulated through the underground car park (if I remember correctly – it is dark, after all) and towards the exit.

If Panahi has been playing with our emotions – is this real? is this staged? is Panahi in danger of being caught filming by a government that surely would use any excuse further to punish him? – then the unease only (impossibly!) increases as the film comes to its final moments.

Panahi steps outside of his apartment block and towards the gates of his building. Hassan turns and tells him that he must not be seen here – a gesture that seems to confirm, finally, that Hassan is not a ‘bad guy’ – but which only suggests, after so much claustrophobia upstairs on the 9th floor, a sense of liberation. This sense of liberation in stepping outside of the apartment further reinforces one’s sense of Panahi’s frustration and enclosure. That he might get spotted simultaneously reinforces one’s sense of paranoia – ‘they’ are, or at least, might be watching.

And as the film draws to its close, Panahi films a street fire taking place right by the gate to his apartment block and around which shadowy figures gather and dance. What had for a while seemed a generic film now becomes once again political: the fires are an act of defiance, suggesting the passion of the people, their desire for change in an Iran in which Panahi has been imprisoned for, it seems, nothing more than making a film. A beacon in the darkness.

But this final political charge does not resolve the question – defined as it is by uncertainty and anxiety – concerning whether we have just watched an elaborate hoax, or whether Panahi has managed to make a film that portrays a reality the weird and wonderful nature of which is more inscrutable and fascinating than any fictional world could be.

In creating a film that plays with our expectations in this manner, Panahi exposes the way in which cinema has ingrained itself in our thought patterns. An innocent man, Hassan, could be a spy, we/I fear. Paranoia perhaps characterises our times, but this paranoia is also linked to our secret belief that somehow we might be in a filmic reality in which people are spying on us.

Except that we know that Panahi is under house arrest; that ‘they’ probably are spying on him – regardless of whether or not he has managed to make a non-film and to have it distributed (how have the powers that be in Iran responded to this? is this all part of an even bigger hoax in which – crazily – Iran creates myths about its filmmakers in order to enhance their international reputation?).

It is not that we should take the content of these questions seriously (or should we?). It is that the suspicion that we could possibly be in a film, or what I shall call ‘cinematic thinking,’ suggests that cinema is our measure of reality – and not that reality is our measure of cinema.

This is not intended as disrespect to anyone who has suffered recently or ever at the hands of this or any political regime, but it seems as though repressive regimes (which I shall label as fascist, whether the regimes in question identify themselves with this term or not) themselves function cinematically. That is, fascism and cinema are inherently linked, in that the cultivation of fear that allows one to control the people is achieved not strictly in films, but in making people suspect that they might be in a (genre) film.

If we find the roots of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime back in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, during which cinemas were burnt down (with people in them), and during which the late Ayatollah Khomeini critiqued the cinema as a dangerous, but potentially useful, tool for controlling the people, then we could conceivably argue that Ahmadinejad has taken Khomeini’s lesson to heart. He has done so not by rejecting cinema, but by allowing cinematic thinking to penetrate the minds of his people, such that they live in fear. Such that they think that their lives could turn into a film, like Panahi’s life here, and that they, too, could be buried alive or worse…

If – paradoxically – the current Iranian regime asserts its power through the propagation of cinematic thinking, then, Panahi’s anti-regime film must by definition be non-cinematic. As he and Mirtahmasb themselves declare through their title, if it is Iran itself that has become a movie of sorts, then this film is not – and cannot be – a film.

What is true of Iran here becomes true of cinema as a whole – meaning that Panahi – whose films up until this point have always left me only lukewarm in comparison to some of the other Iranian filmmakers whose works I love – has made not just his masterpiece, but a true masterpiece of all cinema and – remarkably – under the most strenuous and minimal conditions.

This ‘truth’ is that ‘cinematic thinking’ infiltrates all of us – and the more we feel that we are living in a film, the more (potentially) we are prey to the logic of fascism, whether or not control is the deliberate or merely the unconscious aim of anyone anywhere.

That is, the more we prefer cinema to life, the more we wish our lives were cinematic, the more we will into existence the repressive/fascistic regimes that are required to bring this about. In a fashion akin to (of course) Gilles Deleuze, Hollywood and Hitler go hand in hand – such that cinema and fascism are inextricably bound the one to the other.

If this is the case, then Panahi’s non-film strikes a blow to fascism everywhere. But how is this so?

This is so because the non-film is not cinematic in the recognisable and generic sense defined above, hence its status as a ‘non-film.’ This non-film explores paranoia, but where mainstream cinema might make that paranoia real, not least by centering the film on an individual protagonist or on a small group of individual protagonists, here Panahi’s film leaves us to query whether the paranoia is real, or whether it is just us reading it into the film.

By raising the question that we are reading this paranoia into the film, Panahi exposes to us our susceptibility to cinematic thinking (rather than simply reinforcing it). Panahi, himself a political and not a legal prisoner, as Mrs Gheyrat argues (and if we are to believe her); in other words, Panahi himself precisely the person to say that the paranoia is justified because he has been placed under house arrest for his thoughts and for his creative endeavours, as if either could ever be crimes. If Panahi, then, exposes our susceptibility to cinematic thinking despite being entirely qualified to think it himself, then truly we must take note.

If Panahi – together with Bani-E’temad – refuses to live in fear, then none of us, be we from Iran or anywhere, should live in fear. By creating a film that in some senses destroys cinema, then Panahi’s film is justifiably ‘not a film.’ Panahi is superficially the centre of his film – we see plenty of him in frame throughout its duration. But his encounters with others, hopefully innocent as they seemingly turn out to be, remind us that we are not the centre of things and that we should not in an individualistic/paranoid sense believe that we are. There are always others; we are always with others; we do not – and cannot – exist without others.

And yet cinema has – in its more popular iterations, anyway – perpetuated the myth of the individual, written wider as mancruel against, and not with, nature. In this way, This is Not a Film is not the becoming cinema, or the becoming light, that most humans dream of. Rather it is Panahi’s unbecoming cinema that, paradoxically, lends to the film its great depth and power.

If cinema were not linked inextricably to fascism (again, defined here not as a single historical movement or moment, but as the repressive (and often self-willed) control of the people in all places and at all times – perhaps even in pre-cinematic times), then non-films like Panahi’s would not be necessary. They would have no existence, no meaning.

Perhaps the paradoxically mainstream nature of individualistic/paranoid thought justifies the artist, who tries to remind the world that we are with each other and with the world. That is, perhaps fascism has a mass psychology that is difficult for we humans to accept, even though we disavow our desire for fascism on an almost daily basis.

This is one conundrum I am not in a position to resolve – not during this [non-?]blog at any rate.

Nevertheless, in unbecoming cinema, Panahi exposes the cinema that has filtered repressively through Iran to allow Ahmadinejad to steal an election and to continue to impose his will on a people waking up to the realisation that this is not what they want, and that they need not live in fear.

As Panahi steps outside, he sees others who are also already outside. The example can spread beyond Iran: perhaps it is time for us all to step outside. To live not in fear. But to embrace reality and all that it contains. To think not just individually, but through a sense of withness. To reject fascism, to realise the extent to which we think cinematically – perhaps even to realise the extent to which thinking cinematically means that we think in clichés, and to realise that thinking in clichés means that we probably do not think at all.

If these are not in themselves clichés (and they could be), it is time, perhaps, to think – and perhaps to act by stepping outside, by exposing ourselves to encounters with others, by recognising that we are only ever with others and with the world. Not to have answers, but questions. Not to be certain but – as per Panahi’s film – to be asking about the truth-status of all that we see.

Perhaps there is no reality without cinema, no cinema without reality. Answering this question is not important. Or rather, not answering this question is very important. Buried in Iran, where paranoia/cinema is perhaps most justified as a mode of thought, Panahi refuses to answer this question. Again, for this reason his non-film is not a film in the conventional sense of the word.

But it is for certain a work of art that dances on the edge of cinema and non-cinema, of thought and non-thought, asking questions, inducing thought, living not in fear, even if the film also explores – consciously or otherwise – the politics of fear, making us aware that fear is not imposed from without but something with which we are all complicit.

Strangely, if we are complicit in our belief in the individual and the concomitant rise of fascism-enabling paranoia, then a paradox emerges in that individualism/paranoia/fascism is reliant on complicity/withness, while at the same time occulting that very withness that enables it; the job here is to bring withness back to visibility such that rampant individualism, paranoia and thus fascism might evaporate.

Since we are all together, we must all recognise this and each other. When we recognise each other – even when, like Panahi, we live confined to only a few rooms – then we can begin to live in a democracy, both in Iran and around the world.

Notes from the LFF: Orion (Zamani Esmati, Iran, 2010)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema

Orion sees established Iranian filmmaker and one-time Abbas Kiarostami protégé Jafar Panahi work as an editing consultant.

It is not that Panahi’s stamp is all over Zamani Esmati’s second film. But it is that Orion shares with one of Panahi’s best known works, Dayereh/The Circle (Iran/Italy/Switzerland, 2000), the name of one of its lead characters.

In Panahi’s film, Elham (Elham Saboktakin) is a nurse who is now married to a doctor, but who has a prison record that she tries to hide. She refuses to help Pari (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy), a woman who is pregnant with a husband who has since been executed, and who herself has just come out of prison and is in danger of being killed (it seems) by her family.

In Esmati’s film, Elham (Nasim Kiani) is either pregnant out of wedlock and in need of an abortion (the common assumption that one might make) or, as one of my students suggested followed an educational screening of Orion at the London Film Festival, she is a girl who has lost her virginity out of wedlock, and who is seeking surgery to have her hymen replaced.

Elham may be a relatively common name in Iran and the fact that each film features a major character called Elham may simply be a coincidence, but it does point to the similar features of both films, even if in Panahi’s Circle, Elham is the only woman to walk free (by refusing to help her fellow women), while in Esmati’s Orion, Elham ends up incarcerated.

Both films deal with the impossible plight of women in a society dominated by patriarchal Shi’ite values. Both films also deal with the quietly repressive police regime in Iran: although Orion is set in Yazd, as opposed to Tehran, both feature police forces that are in many respects ruthless, but also very human.

In Orion in particular, we see the police arrive at the house/studio of a would-be filmmaker (Hamed Baraghani), walk in, and arrest everyone, including Elham (eventually), her boyfriend Amir (Mehrdad Sheykhi), and his doctor friend who has come to perform the operation (Mohammad Reza Farzad). There is no shouting, no aggressive questioning, no busting down the doors. The police officers enter, talk calmly, and ensnare their suspects through persistent question that is reminiscent in part of Kafka or Arthur Koestler. The police then swap mobile phone gags with their suspects, provide water and pills for their inmates, and generally seem to let people come and go – but very few people do go, perhaps because they know that there is nowhere that they can go.

In other words, it is not that the police here (and in The Circle) is evil in any obvious or ostensible fashion, but it is banal in a way that does recall Hannah Arendt‘s most famous phrase. (If it is not banal to say that evil is banal.)

However, perhaps this banality in part relates to the fact that the men are not really in any danger of being imprisoned. Rather, it is only Elham who runs the risk of prison and shame. For, the supposed sins of the couple – sleeping together outside of wedlock – are transposed uniquely on to the woman, Elham: Amir will and does walk free for deflowering Elham, while Elham goes to prison, presumably having been branded a whore.

Men get away with everything and anything, complains Elham’s mother to Amir in front of the courtroom. And this seems to be the case: twice in the film, we see Elham trying to run away from the police – first when she sneaks out of the back door of the filmmaker’s house, and second when she runs from the courtroom where she will be arrested. Both times, we know that she is being pursued, but we have little or no access to the pursuer, be it from Elham’s or the pursuer’s point of view. That is, these are not depicted as chases. Instead, each is depicted more or less from Elham’s perspective, as we follow behind her. She tries to open doors, she tries to climb over walls, and so on. And each time, she finds only a dead end at which – eventually but with total inevitability – a police officer finally arrives. The second time, she hits the police officer and continues her would-be escape, only for the film to cut to her leaving prison, presumably several days/weeks/months later.

Rather than showing us a chase, then, both scenes are reminiscent of nightmares in which one runs away from an unseen force, only to suffer from one or a combination of the following: one’s legs suddenly becoming frictionless, meaning that one is running, but going nowhere; or one’s legs suddenly being only able to move as if through syrup; or, worse, running into a random house for protection, only to find that it is the house of the person pursuing you. For Elham, her efforts to escape are futile – as indicated by the lack of hurry in pursuing her. This sense of imprisonment makes the film powerfully unbearable (for me).

Akin to Bahman Ghobadi’s recent Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009), Esmati’s film was shot on a micro-budget with digital cameras and without a permit, meaning that the film is ‘underground’ in Iran but obviously something of interest to film festivals. Matthew Holtmeier has perceptively written about how that film is reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze’s (and Félix Guattari’s) notion of a ‘people to come.’ Since Deleuze and Guattari came up with the notion in relation to Kafka, and since this film is reminiscent (to me) of Kafka, then one feels tempted to say the same of Orion. But in some respects, the film is not as defiant as Ghobadi’s; it is singularly more pessimistic and as a result, one does not sense much in the way of ‘futurity’ or hope.

The film ends with Elham being dragged from the back seat of her father’s car and into the desert, where he may or may not stab her with a screwdriver. Elham’s mother pleads with him to stop, and as a gale blows up and a sandstorm blows from right to left across the screen, all three are framed from the open car door on their knees, howling to God and to each other. The shot of the desert is a powerful one, bringing to mind the hopelessness of Elham’s situation – one cannot fight these natural and, more pointedly, naturalised forces such as desire (which, sadly, got her in trouble in the first place) and the (here, Iranian Islamic) Law (which is not natural, but has become naturalised/made to be thought of as natural).

However, for all that Orion is pessimistic, we should be careful not to read it as a documentary that tells it like it is (in every case, even if stuff like this does happen). That is, we should not generalise from this film that everyone’s experiences in Iran are the same. The reasons for this are not to say that the film is inaccurate, or wrong. But just that non-Iranian viewers might feel compelled to ‘condemn’ all Iranians for being in some sense ‘bigots,’ the problem being that this is perchance a bigoted attitude to have in the first place (and provided that this is not a bigoted attitude to have against bigots and bigotry as a whole).

While I was inclined to argue that Brillante Mendoza’s Lola/Grandmother (France/Philippines, 2009) is more realistic than John Sayles’ Amigo (USA, 2010) on account of its budget in a recent post (my argument being that a lower budget means less control when shooting on the streets, which means more ‘reality’ creeps in), here I should make clear that no film is absolutely realistic (particularly when representing history, as Sayles’ film purports to). So – yes, Orion was shot ‘underground’ (i.e. without permission from the authorities), and it was funded by Esmati himself for a very small amount of money, and it is shot with handheld digital cameras that suggests realism, but this does not make what the film shows us as real or even wholly realistic.

In some respects, the film knows this: many of the film’s framings are arch, in the sense that they are knowingly ‘meaningful’: shots of the main characters from behind bars, or an inserted moment where a child’s kite gets stuck on the roof of the filmmaker’s house all attest to the lack of freedom that the characters endure not just from the authorities/the Law, but also from the story that the filmmaker imposes upon them. Furthermore, in that same house, posters for films and, in particular, film stock are seen hanging from the walls. An image of Al Pacino is on its side: Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, USA, 1975) this is not. But that we see images that are framed by strips of celluloid also brings to mind that we are watching not reality itself, but a fabricated reality (even if one that takes in real locations).

Perhaps this is most noticeable in a long scene in the filmmaker’s editing ‘suite,’ in which Esmati/his editor/Panahi (as editing advisor) has inserted multiple ‘jump cuts’ in which perhaps (as few as) one, two or three frames have been removed from the image track, while the sound track seems to remain constant. The effect of this scene is to make the viewer not only aware that they are watching a film, but it is also to suggest that the male characters in this scene, who discuss the relative freedom of their lives, and who complain about women, somehow elude the camera. Or that they have a freedom of mobility that the camera cannot quite capture, while Elham struggles to run away (from the camera as much as from the police officers that we do not see chasing her), but never can. Perhaps this explains why we do not see Elham in prison at all; the camera does not need to imprison her there; its only function is to imprison her while not in prison, the camera serving as a panopticon machine.

If Orion is not necessarily to be considered as realistic, then, perhaps we can draw something out of its status as a festival film. If the lack of a permit means that the economic potential of this film in Iran is nil (even though, as a recent book on Iranian cinema makes clear, those who grant filmmaking permits in Iran can often spot and even turn a blind eye to/implicitly encourage subversive material), its aspirations for life lie in both the pirate market and its strange bedfellow, the film festival circuit.

The festival circuit and piracy are arguably two sides of the same coin regarding what they can offer a film in terms of life and audiences. By taking images without authorisation, Esmati is something of a pirate (he takes his camera into the street while other pirates take their cameras into the cinema), who is in turn supported by the festival circuit. Aside from making this parallel, it is important to note that Esmati might well have made this film knowing that it would get on to the festival circuit, not least because Iran is a hot topic now that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is threatening to go nuclear (how could a country so medieval in its treatment of women dare to become a power so modern as to have nuclear?).

That is to say: non-Iranian viewers of film festival films (i.e. the relatively wealthy and specialised audiences that get to and can afford film festival films, which, in London at least, typically cost more than a normal cinema ticket) arguably like seeing images of ‘backwardness’ in Iran, because it conforms to the media image of Iran/Ahmadinejad as a cruel tyrant keeping a desert-strewn country in the Dark Ages.

This is not to say that Iran is not unstable as a country, nor to say that Ahmadinejad is not an election-stealing tyrant. That is not my opinion to give. But it is to question the motives of festival goers and programmers for going to and putting into film festivals films that are critical of Iran, and by extension Islam (since the country is an Islamic Republic) – especially its/the religion’s treatment of women.

Given the overwhelming youth of Iran’s population, one wonders how taboo extra-marital sex really is (that is, on the – or under the – ground), even if sex is supposed not to be depicted in/on film (though I am sure that pornography proliferates in Iran, whether or not there is a specifically Iranian porn industry). Furthermore, when we compare this film to recent work by, say, Tahmineh Milani, one wonders to what extent this is a stylised portrayal of middle class life as much as her films are but in the opposite direction (if very different to her earlier films, Atash bas/Cease Fire, Iran, 2006, is a comedy about affluent middle class Iranians, featuring a very strong female lead).

No doubt there are problems in Iran and perhaps with Islam in general with regard to the imbalance between the sexes, even if prominent women like Shirin Ebadi might suggest otherwise. But for whatever Orion shows us that is troubling and problematic, we should not, as Western/festival audiences, trust that it is true without at least some questioning of the film. Indeed, given the self-conscious moments in the film (in particular the framing and the jump cuts in the editing suite), Orion itself seems to want us to know that it is presenting us not with reality itself, but with, as per the moments when Elham tries to run away but cannot, a nightmare version of reality.

Amir is an astrophysicist who is expecting to escape to the West – although this may not happen for him if he is forced to stay and marry Elham. The constellation Orion is mentioned in the film as the constellation of the hunter. This might make of Orion an interesting companion to Rafi Pitts’ new film, The Hunter (Iran/Germany, 2010), which is due out shortly in the UK. But for this film, it seems that Amir, as a man, hunts women/has freedom (to exert his power) over them. In one particularly cruel scene, he barefacedly lies to a judge that he has not had an affair with Elham – Amir not thus being found guilty of perjury, but instead Elham being convicted more forcefully for his crime. He perhaps aspires to a god-like status (not least because he will escape Iran), while Elham and presumably other women are treated as mere humans, perhaps even as less than human.

While we do not see Elham’s incarceration, we do see the overnight stay that Amir and his friends make in a cell. They drink alcohol (supposedly against the law) and banter: apparently being arrested does not particularly fluster them. Elham, meanwhile, is isolated, silent and barely gets to speak throughout the film. Because the film challenges the typical understanding of prison (guards telling men to shut up, rattling the prison bars, etc), it seems rather to suggest that the prison is as much a mental one as a physical one – not least because Amir’s physician friend gets his assistant to bring them food and ethanol (what poor security that prison has!).

As such, the film becomes not so much a realistic portrayal of life in Iran, as opposed to an allegory about freedom, perchance a more specific allegory about the freedom of women in the Islamic Republic. This might put us back in the territory of Fredric Jameson who relatively problematically has suggested that all ‘Third World’ texts (including films?) are necessarily read in the West as allegories of the nation. But in some respects, I wonder that the ‘allegorical’ reading is paradoxically more accurate than extrapolating from the film that Iran is a terrible society full of evil men and victimised women. I’ve no doubt that Iran has its share of these as do all corners of the planet, and perhaps Iran is unfortunate in having such people (the men, anyway) actually in positions of power.

But if nothing else, and as Hamid Dabashi has argued, Iran is a complex and multicultural society that has rich intellectual, artistic, cultural, social and scientific traditions. To look upon it in simplistic terms, not as Orion does, but as Orion‘s audience might feel tempted to do, is look upon it with veiled eyes.