Not shown on general release, to my knowledge, in Bradford, I was able to catch this courtesy of Bradford’s Literature Festival. It is the fourth of director Jafar Pahani’s films in his eighth year of a filmmaking ban in Iran. The film shares its guerilla-style filmmaking practices with the earlier films but is more adventurous in exploring a form of road movie. It opens with a ‘selfie’ film made on her phone by a young woman. She’s pleading for a rescue from her conservative family in her village home in the far North West of Iran where Azeri (or ‘Turkish’ as the locals call it) is the common language. She threatens suicide and the film is sent to the well-known film and TV actress Behnaz Jafari via the film director Jafar Panahi (both playing themselves). Distraught, Jafari insists Panahi take her to the girl’s village – abandoning her own filming schedule in the process.
The villages used in the film are those of Panahi’s own mother, father and grandparents, so he felt comfortable making a film there. There are several diversions on the way but eventually the cave where the video was shot is found and the young woman’s family in the village is identified. But this isn’t a thriller or a mystery. It’s a road movie with encounters. It’s also a fiction in which the two leads play themselves and their own personal narratives are woven into the story.
The Press Notes for the film reveal that the idea for the story came from one of many social media messages that the director receives. One day he received an Instagram message from a young would-be filmmaker which disturbed him and then he read a newspaper report about a young woman who committed suicide because she wasn’t allowed to make films. It’s difficult to discuss the film without spoilers but I’ll try to limit them. All I will say about the plot is that the title may refer to three women – the young woman in distress, the actor and an older woman in the village who has been ostracised because she was a performer before the revolution in 1979.
I’m further indebted to the Press Notes for a commentary on what Panahi hoped to achieve. The film provides him with a way of exploring the history of Iranian Cinema and the obstacles that filmmakers have faced in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. He even makes use of a single track mountain road which perhaps acts as a metaphor for the timeline of Iranian Cinema. The road winds around headlands which requires drivers to use their horns and listen for answering horns – and then follow a strict code of signals in sequence to discover whether to drive on or wait for an on-coming vehicle to pass. This is just one of the local traditions that visitors from Tehran must negotiate.
However, the remoteness of the region doesn’t mean local people are not aware of what is happening in Tehran. Behnaz Jafari is quickly recognised and the Press Notes suggest that villagers were actually watching her in a TV programme when Panahi arrived to film a scene. As the director and the actor travel around the village and stay overnight, the film offers a range of examples of the opposition between tradition and modernity, much of which is based on the patriarchal attitudes in the villages – though the women show themselves to be resourceful in counteracting the effects of their treatment by men. There is a neat balance between the solidarity of the three female ‘performers’ and the interaction between Panahi and one of the male elders who insists that Panahi must perform a ritual for him and his son and who references the star status of a popular male actor who was forced to flee Iran after the revolution, but still stands as a role model for ‘masculinity’.
Reading through reviews of the film, I note that several writers refer to similar films by Abbas Kiarostami. I did myself think of both Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). The first of these films is part of a trilogy of films in which Kiarostami explores the relationship between a director (based on himself), real events and the actors who play in the director’s films. In the second, journalists from Tehran, one posing as an engineer, travel to a Kurdish village in a remote area to ‘observe’ the mourning rituals for a woman who is supposedly about to die. There is clearly a connection of sorts here, but Kiarostami doesn’t play himself and I think there is a different ‘feel’ in Panahi’s films. Where Kiarostami’s films appear enigmatic and intellectual, Panahi’s films feel more direct. He shows us scenes and leaves us to decide what to make of them via his guidance as a character in the narrative. Early in the narrative there is the suggestion that Behnaz Jafari is a little suspicious of his actions and thinks that this might be a set-up. In fact, the whole film is a set-up, but it seems pretty clear to me what Panahi wants to say.
Jafar Panahi is a deeply humanist director and his ability to make four films while banned shows his commitment and determination. It’s amazing that they turn out so well (the three I’ve seen, at least) and I look forward to whatever appears next.
Jafar Panahi is one of four Iranian filmmakers who have helped to establish Iranian art cinema with audiences across the globe. (The others are Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi and Mohsen Makhbalmaf with his other family members.) Panahi stands out because he has remained in Iran and taken on the government censors with hard-hitting films. As a result he has been arrested and has faced severe restrictions. His earlier films were heavily influenced by neo-realism but since his ‘house arrest’ he has had to develop new ways of making films. The tragedy is that although the films have won prizes at international festivals, it has proved very difficult to put them in front of Iranian audiences.
This one hour ‘illustrated talk’ will explore Jafar Panahi’s career, looking at extracts from his films and providing the background knowledge to gain most from his 2003 film Crimson Gold, screened in full.
Crimson Gold is scripted by Abbas Kiarostami and based on a real set of events involving a pizza delivery man in Tehran. Beginning with a dramatic incident, the film then explores why events turned out that way and in particular how the pressures within Iranian society affect many ordinary Iranians.
Jafar Panahi Filmography
Taxi Tehran (2015)
Closed Curtain (2013)
This Is Not a Film (2011)
Crimson Gold (2003)
The Circle (2000)
The Mirror (1997)
The White Balloon (1995)
Jafar Panahi’s film opened on just 18 screens in the UK. It got some excellent reviews and its modest screen average doesn’t seem to have deterred subsequent bookings (you can find the next couple of weeks’ screenings here). It will travel around the UK but I still feel that it is something of an insult to one of global cinema’s finest filmmakers that his Berlin prize-winning film is treated in this way. Most of the bookings are in London and often the film shows just once. The UK’s three chains of supposedly specialised cinemas Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman – are not showing this as a ‘circuit film’ even though it outstrips anything else they have to offer. Taxi Tehran is an unassuming masterpiece based on skill, intelligence, creativity and bravery – all attributes Panahi has consistently demonstrated in his ongoing satire on the absurdities of government control of artists in Iran. Don’t these clods ever realise what an alluring and joyful representation of Iranian culture filmmakers like Panahi are offering to the world? Perhaps this is the very reason why they try to silence him.
You may have read that Taxi Tehran consists entirely of footage taken by a dashboard camera in Panahi’s car as he drives through Tehran accepting passengers as if he was offering a taxi service. On a couple of occasions the footage is augmented by footage from his young niece’s digital still camera. If this sounds dull, believe me it isn’t. I won’t spoil the film by detailing all the ways in which the critique works. I’ll restrict myself to one example. When Panahi picks up his young niece outside her school, she comes on with a full diva stance – his car isn’t flashy enough for a famous director. She then tells him that she has to create a film for a school project and that the film must be ‘screenable’. It must conform to the criteria set down by her teacher. These ‘rules’ include all the proscriptions set out by Iran’s censors, including the ban on ‘sordid realism’ and any discussion of social, economic or political ‘problems’. Panahi’s film breaks all these rules in every mini-narrative which develops each time another passenger gets into his car. I admired Panahi’s earlier This Is Not a Film (2011) but it did involve some tedium and intellectual effort to ‘enjoy’. Taxi Tehran is pure cinema, start to finish as far as storytelling is concerned. If you can’t cope with the director as auteur you might find it irritating that several references to Panahi’s other films are important. Personally, I don’t care – Panahi the man comes across here as a lovely man I instantly want to take round to my local pub. He doesn’t have to drink alcohol if he doesn’t want to but I know he would make the lives of ‘ordinary’ people interesting. At one point, somebody asks him how they should find a story for a film. I thought he might use the neo-realist mantra. He doesn’t, but in practice he follows it all the time – stories based on the everyday encounters of people on the streets. Magnifique!
It was incongruous watching This Is Not a Film on the giant IMAX screen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The image only filled the centre of the enormous screen but even so this was probably the biggest screen the film has played in the UK. And perhaps it isn’t that incongruous since Jafar Panahi’s film is either the cleverest film I’ve seen in a long time or a film that through circumstance has become the ultimate statement about films and filmmaking. (It was on the IMAX screen as part of the Museum’s response to current distribution developments in the UK – though not ideal, using the screen for current releases allows extra flexibility and extends the run of films like This Is Not a Film.)
For anyone unaware of the background to the film, I should point out that Jafar Panahi, one of the best-known and most celebrated of Iranian directors, was arrested in December 2010 and put under house arrest after committing the ‘crime’ of voicing his support for the Green opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad during the 2009 election. Panahi has been sentenced to imprisonment and banned from making films and engaging with foreign critics for 20 years. This film is therefore ‘not a film’ but an ‘effort’ put together by Panahi and his friend, the documentary producer and director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Panahi is obliged to stay in his apartment in Tehran. It’s a very nice and certainly a spacious apartment but it is still a prison. The film details a day of his incarceration from breakfast until evening time. For most of the time Mirtahmasb operates a small professional digital camera while Panahi has his iPhone with its camera facility. Little in terms of conventional narrative action takes place but the events of the day are loaded with significance – starting with a call from Panahi’s lawyer about the appeal on his sentence. There are several visitors/calls at the door and more phone calls that are played through a speakerphone. Panahi analyses/comments on three scenes from his back catalogue of productions which he plays through his TV set. He also attempts to tell us the story of the film he would be making if he hadn’t been banned. This sounds like a typical Panahi neo-realist film in which a young woman from Isfahan who wants to go to university in Tehran is locked in her room by her father . . . but perhaps she is actually more interested in a potential relationship with a boy? The final section becomes a little mini-narrative in its own right in which Panahi, now operating the main camera, ventures a few feet outside the apartment, following a caretaker putting out the bins. The day in question is actually ‘Fireworks Wednesday’, the Persian New Year when people celebrate with bonfires on the streets as well as fireworks. The TV reports at some point that Ahmadinijad has outlawed such celebrations because they are not ‘Islamic’ (I think they are Zoroastrian – see Asghar Farhadi’s film Fireworks Wednesday.)
On the one hand, the whole film is about imprisonment. Panahi shares his space with his daughter’s pet iguana, ‘Igi’, an enormous and very endearing creature who at one point crawls behind a bookcase, threatening to topple hundreds of books. A neighbour asks Panahi to look after a yappy dog for a short while but dog and iguana don’t mix. But even imprisoned, Panahi can’t/won’t stop being a filmmaker. He and Mirtasmasb make fun of the definition of ‘not making’ a film. “You can’t say cut!”. “Just keep the camera running”. What is a film? How do we separate the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’? Nothing in This Is Not a Film is ‘redundant’. Panahi looks up from his MacBook (plenty of product placement!) to watch the TV screen for a few moments as the 2011 tsunami devastates a coastal village in Japan. How do we ‘read’ this scene? Later on, when Panahi asks a few simple questions of the stand-in caretaker, the answers reveal something about life in Iran outside the comfortable middle-class flat. Here is a young man studying for a Masters, but having to work doing several jobs to pay for his education – some of them unpleasant and jobs that must be done full-time by somebody else. This isn’t a critique of Iranian society as such but simply an example of what a student might face and that’s probably enough to anger the authorities.
Each of the three sequences from his earlier films that are shown on his TV set allows Panahi to demonstrate how his realist approach throws up interesting questions about cinema, in particular about ‘amateur’ actors interacting with a script and how the accidental mise en scène of neo-realism sometimes creates strongly symbolic images. And in a sense of course, this is the tease of This Is Not a Film – 72 mins of what seems to be a ‘day in the life’ of an imprisoned filmmaker, but which is actually an artfully constructed essay on cinema. It will no doubt become a film school classic as a film to study. But as we sit back and enjoy it, there is the real worry in that completing the film and smuggling it out of the country for international exposure, Jafar Panahi might have goaded his tormentors into an even harsher regime of repression for filmmakers. I hope not.
The film’s official website in the US also carries details of screenings in the UK. It deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to have been getting so far, so please don’t miss it.