Last Monday, Iranian authorities abruptly called off a celebration planned for A Separation, the Iranian movie directed by Asghar Farhadi that a month earlier won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, beating out the nominations from Canada, Poland, Belgium, and Israel. They provided no reason, but the move was the latest in a longstanding cat-and-mouse game between Iranian artists and authorities, which has escalated noticeably since Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election in 2009. While filming A Separation in 2010, Farhadi had his film permit temporarily revoked when he was accused by the government of supporting opposition politics; he had to publicly apologize to get the license back. Last month, the authorities closed down the Iranian House of Cinema, an independent nonprofit that served as the country’s biggest filmmakers’ guild. Despite pleas from Farhadi and human-rights activist Shirin Ebadi, the guild remains shuttered. And last year, Marzieh Vafamehr, an actress who appeared without a hijab in a film called My Tehran for Sale, was sentenced to one year in jail and 90 lashings.
The most vocal critic of this repression is a filmmaker most Americans have likely never heard of: Jafar Panahi, who has been jailed, sentenced to six more years in prison, and banned from making movies for the next 20 years. Panahi’s latest work—a 75-minute production co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb titled This Is Not a Film—illustrates the discontent many Iranian filmmakers feel while working under such harsh constraints. But it also shows that for filmmakers working in Iran, there is an alternative to propaganda and censorship—if they have the courage and imagination to try.
“Right now, filmmakers either have to accept the censors, or they have to stop making films,” explained Mirtahmasb, in a Skype interview last week. “For [A Separation] Asghar Farhadi was extremely smart in making his film in a way which would give no excuse to the censors, but Panahi and I tried to find a third way: by not following what the censors want, and not being bullied into not making a film, either.”
The solution Panahi and Mirtahmasb came up with was for Mirtahmasb to shoot a candid “non-film” of Panahi inside his apartment. At the time, Panahi was under house arrest and awaiting the results of a legal appeal he’d filed (it was rejected). The concept was a simple one: If Panahi didn’t act, write scripts, operate a movie camera, or direct anyone, he couldn’t be violating his sentence. So, Mirtahmasb followed him around his apartment, documenting the mundaneness of confinement to make a bigger statement about the lack of artistic freedoms in Iran.
In both style and substance, This Is Not a Film is not comparable to A Separation. Farhadi’s film has a plot, developed characters, a dramatic structure. Farhadi negotiated at length with the censors to put out his movie and stuck to the rules: no men and women touching; no blasphemy or anti-government messages; headscarves on at all times. He even convinced them that his movie upheld Islamic values through its deeply religious supporting characters. But the final product shed light on Iran’s stark socioeconomic divisions and portrayed Simin, an educated and strong-willed woman who wishes to leave Iran to give her daughter a better life, as a sympathetic figure. Indeed, Farhadi’s strategy to technically obey official rules may have been what led to authorities feeling duped—and encouraged them to propagandize its success by saying that A Separation symbolized the “beginning of the collapse” of Israeli influence that “beats the drum of war.”
This Is Not a Film, by contrast, was never intended to be screened in Iran and bypassed the censors entirely by purporting to not be a film at all. And it’s not, at least not in the traditional sense: There’s no story, and there isn’t a whole lot to document—at least not literally—beyond the daily drudgery of a man stuck in his apartment. Since This Is Not a Film is set entirely indoors, it features a lot of sitting around, and that’s part of the point. As it turns out, upper-middle-class Iranians stuck in their apartments behave a lot like upper-middle-class Americans or Europeans stuck in their apartments. Panahi’s apartment wouldn’t look out of place on the Upper West Side; there’s even kitschy African art on his walls. He plays with his Macbook, ignores voice-mails from his wife, feeds Iggy, his daughter’s iguana. Even if the censors were to get at it, they likely wouldn’t find anything to cut—no one drinks, politics are absent, and the only women are on the phone or on a TV screen. It is this laborious and intentional absence of anything remotely censorable that makes the production so powerful.
Panahi and Mirtahmasb do make some jabs at their artistic and intellectual imprisonment. Mirtahmasb shoots Panahi making short videos on his iPhone—an homage to the camera phones that documented state violence during the 2009 protests. And during much of This Is Not a Film, loud bomblike noises ring out from outside Panahi’s window. The shots aren’t attacks—Panahi and Mirtahmasb filmed their project during Chaharsanbeh Suri, an annual Zoroastrian fire festival during which Iranians light firecrackers in the streets and jump over fires for good health. The festival, which dates back to the 16th century, is looked at by today’s Islamic government as dissent—perhaps another reason This Is Not a Film includes it.
Mirtahmasb spoke about his experience exactly one year after the feature was shot, on this year’s Chaharsanbeh Suri. He explained, over the occasional blast of fireworks outside his window, that although the situation for directors gets worse “every day,” the alternative is unthinkable. Mirtahmasb was released from his own three months in jail late last year, and he says that prison gave him and Panahi some perspective on filmmaking.
“I think it is harder to not be allowed to make films, write scripts, and even travel and give interviews for 20 years than to be in prison,” Mirtahmasb said. “We are filmmakers—not guerrillas or protesters. We just try to look at society and culture with the view of giving something back. We would rather be filmmakers outside prison rather than heroes within prison.”
While This Is Not a Film represents a new way of creating cinema in Iran, it also fits into an established tradition of creating meaningful and subtly dissident art within the confines of state censorship. An example from 2009 is Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story, a novel that made liberal use of blacked-out words and rewrites to tell the story of two young Iranians, Dara and Sara—names that the author chose carefully with the censors in mind—who communicate their love for each other through borrowed library books. In the novel, Mandanipour stops himself when his characters are getting too close to one another, or having too much fun. He makes parenthetical rationalizations when the legality of a walk in the park is uncertain and looks for authorized precedents for their actions in literature and art much like the way a lawyer does in case law.
Mandanipour (who now lives in the United States) was able to use the idea of censorship to his artistic advantage, but Mirtahmasb says that one can do only so much dismantling with the master’s proverbial tools. “Previously, when censorship wasn’t as strong, we were able to use the restrictions placed upon us to be creative. But today’s restrictions are suffocating,” he said. “I personally think there is no solution to getting around censorship other than accepting the risks and making your film without giving in to the censors.” For him and others, it’s getting to the point where imagining a free society in Iran is almost impossible.
“A friend used to ask me to imagine the film I’d make if I was living in a country like Switzerland,” he said. “I replied that it isn’t possible to think of the ideal film I’d make in the absence of censorship without thinking of larger changes in society. I can’t really know what film I’d make in the absence of restrictions while still living under them. I believe that our films are a way of society seeing itself in the mirror and subsequently improving itself.”