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This is not a review

by The Concordian September 20, 2011
One of the world’s most remarkable filmmakers is being showcased at Cinema du Parc
this week, though under sad circumstances. Jafar Panahi, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker
recently imprisoned for crimes against the state, is the subject of the theatre’s latest retrospective.
All of Panahi’s major films are being shown, from his Kiarostami-penned and Camera d’Or-
winning debut The White Balloon, to his newest project This is Not a Film. All six of these films
are remarkable, especially considering the conditions under which he is producing them.
Panahi, like most filmmakers in Iran working outside the state, has had to deal with
severe censorship throughout his career. All of his films are banned from public viewing in his
home country.
In fact, This is Not a Film had to be smuggled out of Iran, reportedly on a USB key baked into a cake. Early in that film, Panahi brings out a screenplay that was recently rejected by the Cinema House for its treatment of the after-effects endured by Iranian soldiers after the Iran-Iraq War. It’s the first of many moments in the pseudo-documentary that show just how difficult it is to be a serious filmmaker in Iran.
Panahi represents a similar kind of steely courage to that which enthralled readers as
stories of the Arab revolutions began to trickle into the news. Working in perhaps the most
unapologetically oppressive country in the region, he has consistently stared the Islamic regime
in the face and refused to back down. He tackles subjects that directly subvert the state: the
oppression of women, the hypocrisy of the Revolution’s promises, and the realities of modern
Iran for the working class.
The treatment of women in his films is subtle yet piercing, while retaining the fidelity
only neorealism allows. When, in The Circle, one of the characters desperately seeks an
abortion, the viewer sees deep and painful desperation through the eyes of the amateur actor. It’s hard not to believe she has experienced these kinds of limitations too many times.
The young women in Offside are avid soccer fans who are detained for trying to sneak into Iran’s World Cup qualifier—women are not allowed to attend sporting events in Iran. Their burning frustration is something amateurs, and many professionals, could never muster without a basis in reality.
In Crimson Gold, the protagonist’s slow and deliberate spiral towards nihilism is, in itself, a microcosm of the Iranian Revolution and its many broken promises. Hussein observes the same rampant inequality and corruption that spurred the uprising in 1979, and realizes the clerics to be false idols, and no better than the Shah. This is subject matter that pointedly criticizes a state that routinely detains citizens for the smallest whiff of sedition.
This is Not a Film, one of the opening films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, reveals a playful side of Panahi. Though comedy pervades the film, it’s the lighthearted moments, like Panahi coddling his daughter’s iguana, that are the most fleeting: most of the film’s comedy is twinged with tragedy.
The centrepiece, if there is one in this amorphous film, is Panahi acting out scenes from his latest rejected screenplay: alone, on a set made of tape, for a bumpy, lilting camera. And while Panahi’s zeal prevents his performance from becoming pathetic, it makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch the caged virtuoso.
Panahi was just sent to jail for six years, and is facing a 20-year ban on filmmaking,
writing and appearing in interviews. While attempting to leave Iran for France earlier this month, his passport and personal belongings were confiscated. It’s a tragedy for world cinema, and there have been demonstrations across the world, including an empty chair on the Cannes jury this year.
Cinema du Parc’s retrospective is one such demonstration, and worth supporting: not only are these films required viewing for any fan of art house, but they’re also among the most candid looks you’ll get at life under one of the Middle East’s most frightening regimes.

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