Fragile moments of adversity

Jafar Panahi film holds his Silver Berlin Bear at the Berlin ­International Film Festival in 2006. (Tobias Schwarz, Reuters)

Jafar Panahi film holds his Silver Berlin Bear at the Berlin ­International Film Festival in 2006. (Tobias Schwarz, Reuters)

This is not an interview with Jafar Panahi. The Iranian filmmaker may not speak to journalists. He is also not allowed to make films until 2030.

The ban is part of a 2010 court judgment in Iran that also sentenced Panahi, the winner of the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival for The Circle, to six years’ imprisonment.
Panahi was found guilty of crimes against national security, allegedly perpetrated during the 2009 “Green Revolution” when civil dissent reached rebellious new heights following contested election results.

Court appeals have proved fruitless and the sentences have been upheld, but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has yet to imprison Panahi. The director exists in a state of frustrating limbo; he is in effect under house arrest, which is exacerbated by the crushing ban on filmmaking. Bored shitless, in other words.

Banned from writing scripts and directing, Panahi has contributed “an effort”, This Is Not a Film, which was reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a memory stick hidden in a cake in 2011.

This Is Not a Film is a mischievous attempt to read out a script, which the ruling allows, while being filmed by colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. “Perhaps by reading and explaining [the script, which was not approved by the censors], I might create an image of it,” said Panahi.

It is a script based on Anton Chekhov’s From the Diary of a Young Girl and what follows is a personal, poetic examination of the surreal, the banal and the very human moments that permeate his detention.

The film is a reminder of the debilitating and anti-human consequences of prescription and political interference in art.

It is a frustrating experience, especially when an exasperated Panahi realises that “if we could tell a film, then why make a film?”. He turns to scenes from two of his films, Crimson Gold and The Circle, to underline this and the importance of actors’ improvisation, or when the “location does the directing” to reinforce the importance of collaboration, ­surprise and sheer dynamism in the creative process of making movies.

The publicist for the Durban International Film Festival, where This Is Not a Film is being screened, responded to the Mail & Guardian’s interview request by saying “he won’t even give an interview to The Washington Post” because of the fear of a government backlash.

Attempts to interview Iranian colleagues, such as Mohammad Rasoulov, winner of the 2011 Grand Prix at Cannes for Iranian Goodbye, who was also sentenced to prison for his criticism of the Iran’s government, proved equally unsuccessful.

Iranian filmmakers, said Nashen Moodley, Sydney Film Festival director and a friend of Panahi’s, were “not going to go on the record about anything that might get them in trouble. Everything is heavily screened [by the Iranian authorities], including stories published in the international media.”

The Guardian’s film reviewer, Peter Bradshaw, best described the Iranian government’s clampdown on Panahi: “The social brutality, cultural nullity, political arrogance and geopolitical incompetence of this move is breathtaking. To silence an artist, and indeed to alienate possible constituencies of liberal sympathy for Iran in the West, is fantastically crass.”

Another film that deals with making films under difficult conditions is Five ­Broken Cameras, which was screened at the Durban International Film Festival this week.

In this movie co-director Emad ­Burnat, a Palestinian “peasant” from the town of Bilin outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, loses ­several of his cameras to Israeli sniper fire while filming the almost daily protests of the community against the expansion of Israeli settlements in the area and the building of the wall that is to divide Palestine and Zionist Israel.

Winner of the World Cinema directing award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Five Broken Cameras is a deeply personal film about family and human spirit that widens into the often harrowing and violent sociopolitical context that is the West Bank.

Burnat notes, at least once in the film, that his camera has saved his life, but the physical danger is only the most obvious challenge in making this film, according to co-director Guy Davidi.

Davidi, an Israeli activist filmmaker, said the decision to work together brought challenges, including “potential criticism about a Palestinian working with an Israeli”, and also that “we have different privileges and different complications and we had to learn to use them in a constructive way, though they have a tendency to complicate things. We have different cultural backgrounds, life experiences or accessibility to the world and also there are different expectations of us especially because of our identities.”

With films already made about the social movements and protests in Bilin, Davidi had also urged Burnat to make an intimate, personal film, capturing the “fragile moments”. This has been successfully achieved, but only after much apparent coaxing of Burnat to “expose himself”, according to Davidi.

“There is also a lot of repetition: of broken cameras, but of violence especially,” said Davidi. “It became very difficult [during editing] to see so much of it and still remain emotional about it … The challenge was to bring emotional impact and the use of repetition to reflect life in Palestine.”

This Is Not a Film will be screened at the Durban International Film Festival on July 28 at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at 2pm. For full listings visit

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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