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Iranian director Jafar Panahi has tackled Big Subjects in different ways. Acknowledging Italian neo-realism and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) as his inspiration - ''It is the most important film in my life,'' he says - he's made films such as The White Balloon (1995), The Mirror (1997) and Offside (2006), in which the resilience of children in the face of oppressive circumstances becomes an optimistic metaphor for humankind's capacity to deal with a harsh world. He's also made films such as The Circle (2000) and Crimson Gold (2003), which deal head-on with social conditions in present-day Iran.
This is not a Film is a brave, if strategically unwise, response to the Iranian government's punitive reaction to the films the 51-year-old Panahi has made over the years and to the ones he had been planning to make before his arrest a couple of years ago. He's been effectively under house arrest in Tehran ever since and last December was sentenced to six years in prison for ''propaganda against the Islamic republic''.
A masterpiece of allusion, described at the end as ''an effort'' by him and documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, the not-film was made in March this year and was only able to be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May after being smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake. It was shot entirely inside Panahi's apartment, with the camera taking occasional peeks at the world outside, and it begins with Panahi going about his daily business: making himself breakfast, listening to messages from his absent family on the answering machine, feeding their pet as instructed - a giant iguana known as Igi - and talking to his lawyer about his forthcoming appeal. He's told, ''Prison is certain. They're not going to acquit you''.
At least until the latter stages, those involved in the production work to make it clear Panahi isn't the director. After he's outlined his thwarted plans for his next film, based on a one-page Chekhov story titled A Girl's Notes, his attempt to halt proceedings with a command of ''Cut!'' is ignored by the man behind the camera, an off-screen voice reminding him: ''You are not directing. It's an offence.''
Gradually, this not-film becomes a contemplation of what a film might be and who might be deemed responsible for it. Frustrated by his inability to explain exactly how the project in his head is going to be realised, Panahi asks, ''If we can tell a film, why make one?'' And, he wonders, even if his name is attached to a film, to what extent is he actually making the film and to what extent does the work of collaborators override his involvement.
To illustrate his point, he shows sequences from The Mirror and Crimson Gold in which it's what the actors do that determines what appears on screen. Panahi, who likes to work with non-professional casts, goes on to ponder how you might explain to an actor what you want when it's what he or she does that you want. And, in the film's marvellous closing sequence, when he finally picks up the camera, it's the young man who's knocked on his door and recognised that he's in the presence of a famous filmmaker who takes charge of what ensues.
Clearly, the Iranian authorities haven't looked kindly on Panahi's reluctance to toe the line or grasped the subtleties of his not-film. A couple of weeks ago, in the face of outrage from around the globe, a Tehran appeals court confirmed Panahi's sentence, which also includes a 20-year ban on making films, travelling abroad or speaking to the press.
There is a considerable irony in this when one remembers that, having been invited to the US in April 2000 as a guest of the San Francisco Film Festival, which had planned to present him with its Freedom of Expression Prize for The Circle, the very affable Panahi (a Melbourne International Film Festival guest in 2006) was refused entry and sent back to where he came from.— Tom Ryan, The Age
Thu & Fri April 12 & 13, 2012, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
Iran, 75 min, Digital Projection, 2011, in Persian, 1.85:1, Color, Not Rated