There Are No Prisons for Creativity of Though

in 68th Venice Film Festival

by Josefina Sartora

On its last day, the la Mostra section screened an emblematic film of today: This is not a Film (In film nist), by Jafar Panahi and Mojbata Mirtahmasb. One of the most prominent Iranian filmmakers, Panahi has been condemned to six years in prison, and he cannot shoot films, nor write scripts or plays, nor travel abroad for the next twenty years. His colleagues Mohammad Rasulov and Mohammad Nourizad are also condemned, all because they have protested against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s government.

Living in an ideologically repressive regime, where subjects such as violence, politics or sex cannot be shown on the screen, Panahi has made a very expressive and allegorical cinema. In his films he has talked with great courage about the reality in his country, about universal issues and mainly about the Iranian women’s abusive situation. That’s why his feature The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) — which has been awarded in several festivals — is banned in Iran.

Panahi has had a bad history with the authorities. During a stopover on his way to Argentina some years ago, he was arrested at an airport in the USA, detained for several hours, and sent back to his country. He has been in prison in his own country since March, 2010, and he has received very bad treatment by the authorities, although the whole cinematographic community — filmmakers, cinema critics, festivals, cinema magazines — and official organizations have appealed for his freedom.

This is not a Film was shot in secret during his arrest at home, and it was exported from Iran in a clandestine way. It was mainly shot in his apartment, where the filmmaker was arrested, and while he was waiting for the verdict of the Appeals Court. With a very (Reni) Magrittean title, the film is a statement about filmmaking and also censorship. As reading scripts has not been forbidden, he reads his next film’s script. Not only that, but he also takes the place of his main character, a young woman who is locked in her room, her family forbidding her to go to arts college. A communion is established between author and fiction. But he cannot go on with his mimicking and he is sad because of his own experiment, moved by his own ban. Why shoot a film if he can tell it? But cinema has lots of possibilities that cannot be found in the telling. Cinema has its own wonderful possibilities, like the spontaneous moment when the girl in The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997) refuses to continue acting, and he captures it. It is very dramatic when seeing the movie and thinking at the same time that such a film could not have been made twenty years earlier, or perhaps ever.

The film is also a reflection on filming: shot by his friend the documentarist Mojbata Mirtahmasb using a video camera, Panahi prefers to shoot him simultaneously with his cellular phone, as if doing so he would not be making a film. But after having met an art student who comes to his house and urges him to take the digital camera, he agrees to follow him closely into the street, in a protest move. Is that cinema? Is this one a film?

This is not a Film, of course, is a political document about freedom. They can ban him, they can restrict him physically, but they cannot ban his creativity, and his freedom of thinking will persist.