Monday, 28 November 2011

A Film is Not a Film is a Film is Not a Film. Is it? Yes, it is.

[The past month’s silence was due to forced recuperation, to let my shoulder heal. I thought I could keep using my computer with one hand, but I often kept using my recently-operated arm out of habit, causing serious aches and making the whole healing process even more damn laboured and prolonged. I’ve watched a few films while in rest-mode, and the shoulder is recovering nicely now, so I think I’m back on track.

Thought I’d start up again by talking about the most recently viewed film this past month. It’s been one hell of a stop-start year, but it’s good to be back.]

THIS IS NOT A FILM (Jafar Panahi/ Mojtaba Mirtahmasb; Iran; 2011)

What we already know about the film:

-        Panahi created this film earlier this year, with the help of his friend and documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, while under house arrest.

-        On 20 December 2010 he was handed a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on making film, writing screenplays, talking to the media, and leaving Iran. In the film we see Panahi waiting to see whether his sentence will be reduced at all.

-        The film is deemed an “effort” and fervently not a film, as a means to deftly and defiantly side-step the ban.

-        It focuses on Panahi, at home, attempting to outline the film he had started to make, but now cannot complete. He tries to map out scenes in his living room, but is repeatedly frustrated at not being to find the truth of both showing what the film could have been and also the meaning of filming this “effort” in the first place.

-        Thus, the (non)-film can be viewed as a masterclass in querying and analysing the very nature of making film, assessing the heart, the engine, the assembly, the soul, the meaning and the means of constructing film.

-        The film was smuggled out of Iran on a UBS stick tucked inside either a cake or a loaf of bread.

Some personal musings after seeing the film;

-        Panahi’s grace, determination, frustration and natural eloquence in front of the camera make this perhaps the most riveting performance I’ve seen this year. Yes, performance – this may be a non-film, but Panahi himself willingly expresses his intention to place himself as an actor within this “effort”, as acting is not a banned activity.

-        Panahi’s pedagogical lessons on making film reflect themselves in the body of the film. Panahi spends a moment reflecting on a scene in Crimson Gold, where the main character, Hossein, has to exit a jewellers shop and appears to be suffering from a sudden energy-sapping ailment. Panahi describes the surprises that can be delivered by working with amateur actors, as the actor’s instructions to appear unwell are translated into, what is for Panahi, a sublime unscriptable moment with the most unusual eye-rolling expression that he could never have asked for. It is this ‘unscriptability’ of filmmaking that Panahi finds so joyful, and he seems agitated that he is unable to achieve the same thing simply by “telling the story” of the unmade film (“If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”). Yet the expression he has on his face when he stops in mid-sentence during the telling of one scene is exactly this kind of ‘unscriptability’ that he finds compelling. For ten enthralling seconds, maybe more, Panahi face reads so many microscopic, barely noticeable emotions, as he halts, thinks, tries to continue for a few more words, stops, gets lost in thought again, struggles to find words, then finally picks out the words of disappointment he’s been looking for to describe his turmoil at not expressing what he truly wants to express. This one brief moment seems to encapsulate and embody the spirit of the entire film.

-        His daughter’s pet iguana Igi also provides unscriptable ballast for the film, providing moments of humour as it clambers over Panahi, precariously scales a bookcase, and refuses to eat its food, like a spoilt child. But Igi is not only Panahi’s comic foil but also a quiet reminder of Panahi’s own trapped state, climbing the walls inside his own apartment.

-        A small interruption from a tiny yappy dog throws another spontaneously lovely spanner of hilarity into the works, seemingly proving that the old adage that you should never work with children or animals is true.

-        The air of spontaneity may seem thick, but the ‘effort’-makers are happy to allow the film to show its constructed-ness loud and clear – the obvious example is the impression of time elapsing over one day, yet various timecodes in the film clearly show us this is not the case.

-        Panahi’s desire to continuously strip back the content of what he is filming to find the truth is thrillingly admirable. The film is perhaps not-a-film because it is also the record of many different films starting and then stopping. This repeated search to find the heart of what he is trying to express creates an intricately-layered and rich delight that could take many moons to unpick and analyse.

-        I’m glad the USB stick was safely recovered from the cake/bread. It would have been heart-breaking if it had been accidentally eaten. I once nearly ate a USB stick that I dropped in a bowl of muesli. I was tired and addled, and the stick fell out of my shirt-pocket when I was leaning across the bowl to grab the milk. It looked like a large date when I scooped it up on my spoon. I’ve been unreasonably prone to habitual and fastidious inspections of bowls of muesli ever since.