by Justin Senkbile
With talks of an Israeli attack on Iran filling newspapers in recent months, not to mention the continued human rights abuses of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime and the ever-present nuclear paranoia, what better time could there be to take a look at Iran for ourselves? And what better way to do that than to see their films? Fortunately for us, two of the most talked-about Iranian movies of 2011 open this week at the Ross: Jafar Pahani’s “This is Not a Film” and Asgar Farhadi’s “A Separation”.
Many Iranian directors have found their working situations greatly changed since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. Among the high-profile ones, Mohsen Makhmalbaf has been living in self-imposed exile since ’05, and last year Abbas Kiarostami made his first film entirely produced and shot outside his home country (“Certified Copy”). Jafar Panahi’s story is a bit different.
In December of 2010, Panahi was given a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on writing screenplays, directing movies, leaving the country or giving any domestic or foreign interviews. According to the Ministry of Culture, Panahi was thought to be making a film about the widely disputed 2009 presidential election, and was thus considered a subversive element.
“This is Not a Film” finds him at home after being released on bail, attempting to stay productive after months of being unable to work, and awaiting the results of his appeal. One afternoon, he invites over documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. With an iPhone and a slightly more professional video camera, they attempt to make something out of Panahi’s last un-produced script.
Which doesn’t exactly work out. He starts out by reading the script and describing the scenes but, “if we could tell a film, why make a film?”, he ends up wondering. What the small cameras are able to catch is far more revealing than his script. This is a film about a restlessly creative man who’s legally forbidden from being publicly creative, and the well-worn world he resides in (the film takes place entirely in his apartment building).
Throughout the film, Panahi himself seems most skeptical that this footage they’re collecting could ever be cobbled into something resembling a “film”. But “This is Not a Film” is a film… I think. At the very least it isn’t an ordinary film. It’s a daring, funny, dazzling political statement; equal parts video confessional and textured study of a very specific time and place.
“This is Not a Film” was smuggled into the 2011 Cannes festival on a USB drive hidden inside a cake. But even that amazingly dramatic move isn’t the end of the story. Mirtahmasb (along with several other documentarians) was arrested in September of 2011, en-route to the film’s Toronto premiere. And in October, a Tehran appeals court upheld Panahi’s sentence.
With that in mind, the first striking thing about Asgar Farhadi’s “A Separation”, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this past Sunday, is how far it takes us into Iran’s chaotic legal world. The film opens with a bit of virtuosic acting, a simple shot where Simin (Leila Hatami) lays out her argument for divorce while her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) offers his stubborn half-objections.
They decide to split up instead. Which precipitates the need for Nadir to hire a maid (Sareh Bayat as Razieh) to look after his ailing father. So begins the snowball effect of confusion: neglect leads to violence, which leads to injury and police reports. Insults and exaggerations are hurled in the court hearings while the real facts of the matter are divulged privately, and kept hidden by vows and family ties.
The power of the performances in that first scene actually keeps up for the entire two hours. And much of that time is spent in similarly cramped judge’s offices, or in the couple’s apartment in the heat of an argument. Both of these films offer their own extremely precise sense of daily life in the heart of Tehran. But in “A Separation”, through simple observation, we also learn the ways in which family, religion, law and human nature frequently intersect but rarely see eye-to-eye.
“A Separation” actually came pretty close to censorship too. For a time in 2010, Farhadi was banned from making it after comments he made in support of Makhmalbaf and Panahi. The ban was later lifted, and now “A Separation” scoops up Iranian festival awards and gets showered with praise by hometown critics. And more importantly, it actually gets screened for Iranian audiences in Iranian cinemas, something “This is Not a Film” won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future.
“This is Not a Film” is playing through March 8th and “A Separation” is playing through March 15th at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets.