Movie review: Iranian director's iPhone film captures act of courage in 'This is Not a Film'


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Watching "This Is Not a Film," I kept thinking about Michael Moore, who won the documentary Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine" and then lambasted President Bush in his acceptance speech in 2003.

Many pundits predicted, wrongly, that he had committed career suicide although he was subjected to invective backstage and says his Oscar was purposely scratched on the way home. There, he found "Commie Scum" and other signs nailed to trees and his driveway piled waist-high with horse manure.


'This Is Not a Film'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
    Rating: PG-13 in nature due to subtitles and underlying subject matter.

Yes, he was hated in some quarters, but he was allowed to make his film and give his speech, to cheers and boos, and produce more movies, including "Fahrenheit 9/11," and deliver more inflammatory speeches.

Contrast that with Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interviews to Iranian or foreign media and leaving the country, all for 20 years. His crime was the open support of the opposition party in Iran's 2009 election.

While appealing his sentence and confined to his Tehran apartment under house arrest, he and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb shot some footage with an iPhone and modest digital video camera. The result, subversively called "This Is Not a Film," was smuggled into France on a USB drive inside a cake for a last-minute submission to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

While his family is off visiting relatives, Mr. Panahi is stuck in their high-rise apartment, talking on the phone about the possible outcome of his appeal, feeding a pet iguana, watering flowers on the outdoor balcony and sucking on sugar cubes and drinking hot tea.

But once a filmmaker, always a filmmaker, within the boundaries of the ban, of course. He talks about the changes he made to an unproduced screenplay -- "mellow it down a little and it might get permission" -- but it still failed to get approval.

"Now, I thought perhaps I could read out the screenplay. Now that I'm not allowed to make the film, perhaps by reading and explaining, I might create an image of it," he says. "Perhaps the viewer will see the film that wasn't made."

Not only does the viewer see that film but also clips of a couple of his previous releases -- "Mirror" and "Circle" -- along with a snapshot of what life is like for him. Mr. Panahi demonstrates his knowledge and enthusiasm for his craft along with his innate curiosity, as when a man comes to the door to collect the trash and he peppers him with questions.

In the past 15 years, several of his movies have played in Pittsburgh, starting with "The White Balloon" in 1996, then "The Circle" in 2001, "Crimson Gold" in 2003 and "Offside" in 2007.

In "Offside," a father frantically searches for his daughter who has boldly and illegally snuck into a males-only stadium to watch a soccer match. It's a variation on a theme about the restrictions on women that popped up in the story he was forbidden to film.

At one point, Mr. Mirtahmasb (wielding the small regular camera) laughs and says, "Take a shot of me in case I'm arrested. ... It's important that the cameras are on." In fact, he later was arrested and kept behind bars for three months until being released on bail of $200,000.

Keeping the cameras on is something directors around the world can understand.

After Mr. Panahi was arrested in March 2010, Iranian directors, actors and other artists signed a petition seeking his release. The next month, prominent American directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Spielberg and Mr. Moore signed a letter urging the Iranian's release.

In May 2010, after embarking on a hunger strike, Mr. Panahi was released on $200,000 bail. Later that year, he was handed the strict sentence designed to keep him captive and quiet.

In October 2011, he lost his appeal, but because the cameras stayed on, the not-a-film took the cake and the conversation at Cannes. Yes, not a film but an act of cinematic creativity and sheer courage.

With English subtitles. Plays Friday through Tuesday at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room in Oakland.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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