Tuesday, September 13, 2011

'This Is Not A Film' is a stirring movie

When the final curtain falls at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) audiences will have seen hundreds of premieres. 

Among the films expected to become box office hits is “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt as Billy Jean, The Oakland A’s general manager whose unorthodox approach to fielding a baseball team had a major impact on the game. 

I had every intention of seeing it, but on my way to the theater I ran into a line of people talking about the Iranian filmmakers, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who smuggled their movie into North America on a USB baked in a cake.

It first premiered at Cannes. Now it’s showing at TIFF.

Panahi and Igu the pet iguana.
I had no idea what it was about, but it was the shortest line in town. I also felt a kind of urgency in seeing it, considering what the filmmakers had to do to get it to Toronto.
So, I followed the line to see “This Is Not A Film” and saw a heart-warming film that was not only entertaining but inspiring.

The film depicts a day in Panahi's life as he appeals his conviction for "assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." He was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from writing and making films for 20 years. He is under house arrest in Tehran, where he and Mirtahmasb made this film.

It starts off with Panahi working alone with the camera mounted on a tripod. Audiences see him going through the motions of a normal day beginning with call from his wife saying she would be home later. Then there's a call from Panahi's lawyer leading us to believe that there is little hope for his appeal and that he is certain to go to jail. The news is upsetting, but Panahi forges ahead with his documentary.

How does a filmmaker banned from filmmaking do such a thing?

It sounds absurd and there are times when even Panahi questions the project. But audiences see a calm and dignified man choosing to create something positive out of what appears to be an impossible situation. His quest becomes slightly easier when Mirtahmasb (documentary filmmaker) offers to help him complete the task even though he is putting himself at risk by doing so. 

Filmmaker Panahi masking out a set on the floor in his living room.

Panahi’s attempt to show audiences the film he had planned to do (even using masking tape to sketch out a set on the living room floor) is a stretch of the imagination but interesting. 

 The situation is grave, but a pet iguana and the comical banter between he and Mirtahmasb -- created by the irony of their situation -- makes us laugh and in doing so deepens our concern over the director’s fate.  

"They say when hairdressers are bored they cut each other's hair," Panahi said. So, he picks up his camera phone and starts shooting Mirtahmasb shooting him. This introduces a whole other dimension to the story including a young college student who came to the building to take out the trash. The student graciously allows Panahi to film him carrying out the mundane task of collecting garbage on each floor. “All of a sudden, I’ve jumped into your film,” the student said. 

The garbage scene plays out until the two reach the gates to the building and the entrance to the streets where people are shooting off fireworks despite the president’s declaration that they are illegal. Just before the film ends, we hear the student voice his fears for Panahi. “Please don’t come outside,” the young man said to Panahi. “They’ll see the camera.” But the filmmaker continues to shoot until finally the screen goes black leaving us all wondering what will happen to Panahi.

What we do know is that he was unable to attend the screening of his film and remains under house arrest in Tehran. But his wife and daughter traveled to Toronto on his behalf. Mirtahmasb was on his way, too, but a spokesperson for TIFF said he was detained by customs in Tehran.

Most of the films at the festival fetched $20 per regular screening while gala presentations cost about $40. The screening of “This Is Not A Film” was free. Not because it wasn't as good as the others, but because organizers felt that this “This Is Not A Film” is, in fact, a great movie everyone should see.   

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow" -- Mary Anne Radmacher

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