x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

This Is Not a Film could be last piece of work from Panahi

In his controversial documentary, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi battles against creative repression.

Stories of USB sticks smuggled across borders in cakes are usually the stuff of movies, not the real-life manner in which they're distributed. But earlier this year, such a tactic was the only way Jafar Panahi's latest offering could leave Iran.

This Is Not a Film, which screens as part of the Dubai International Film Festival at Mall of the Emirates today, was shot in early 2011 as the award-winning director was living under house arrest, awaiting the appeal of a six-year prison sentence and 20-year filmmaking ban for "colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic". Having successfully reached France hidden on a flash drive in a birthday cake, the film was eventually presented by Panahi's friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

The 75-minute documentary follows a day in the life of Panahi in his Tehran apartment as he discusses his appeal over the phone with his lawyer, drinks tea and goes over a screenplay for a movie he was planning to produce. He describes a young girl he previously directed and maps out a makeshift set using tape on the carpet (he's not allowed to hire any actors or create any sets). It's all tremendously post-modern - essentially a film about not making a film - but avoids being overtly intense via some near farcical scenes, particularly those involving his daughter's pet iguana that skulks around the flat and heroically attempts to scale the bookcase.

Much of the film is actually spent with Panahi attempting to take advantage of a loophole in his sentence, remaining in front of the camera while Mirtahmasb records the action on his iPhone. But the director does turn the camera on to his friend, who requests that he takes his photo should he get arrested as well. Panahi will obviously not be in Dubai to present his film. Just two months ago, precisely as he is warned by his lawyer in This Is Not a Film, his appeal was rejected. Mirtahmasb, too, is unlikely to be present. His fears were justified and he was stopped on his way to the Toronto International Film Festival and charged with supplying the BBC with anti-regime videos. He is now banned from travelling outside of Iran.

Since his initial arrest in 2009, Panahi has been a well-documented non-attendee of international film festivals and his symbolic "empty seat" has become a regular fixture on jury panels across the world. The names on a petition demanding his release from prison last year reads like a who's who of Hollywood's filmmaking elite, with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola and numerous others among the signatories. Even for those who haven't seen such films as 1995's The White Balloon, which won him the Camera d'Or at Cannes, or The Circle, which picked up the top award in Venice in 2000, the name Panahi has become almost synonymous with the battle against artistic censorship and creative repression.

But despite such global support, it's unlikely to hold any sway with the Iranian government. A tearful tribute by Juliette Binoche at Cannes 2010 is thought to have aided his release from Tehran's Evin prison on bail just days later, but the subsequent rejection of Panahi's appeal shows that perhaps sympathies don't stretch much further.

Whatever happens to Panahi - and now Mirtahmasb - This Is Not a Film, whatever it may be, is an important piece of work, and one well worth seeing given that it could be the last from one of the region's finest filmmakers.

This Is Not a Film screens at Mall of the Emirates today at 8.30pm and tomorrow at 2.30pm. For more information and tickets visit www.dubaifilmfest.com

aritman@thenational.ae