The creation of art is an act of cartography: it charts unknown territory, creating living, breathing atlases of worlds that can only be accessed by their singular authors. So if artistry is an act of genesis, it must have its counterforce--erasure, destruction, silence, suppression—which takes shape under the guise of censorship. Every artist’s nemesis, censorship—whether political, social, or even self-inflicted—amounts to an unnatural death inflicted upon a creature thriving in its infancy. So it seems contradictory at first glance to ponder the (non-)production circumstances of This Is Not a Film, the 2011 pseudo-documentary from Iran. Officially directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and unofficially by Jafar Panahi, This Is Not a Film “turns censorship into great art,” according to IndieWire. Following a harsh legislative decision in 2010 that banned Panahi from filmmaking for 20 years after he was nebulously convicted of "conspiring against the state," he and Mirtahmasb set out to turn Panahi’s sentence inside out, obeying the letter of the law in order to implicitly denounce its spirit.
An artist silenced
This Is Not a Film was made after Panahi’s stay in a Tehran prison and during a mandated house arrest. In addition to being barred from filmmaking and from giving interviews to the press, Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison. He’s now* in a torturous limbo called “the execution of the verdict,” during which he can be convicted and sent back to prison by the Iranian government at virtually any time. As a result of his house arrest, This Is Not a Film is confined in its setting, if not necessarily in scope: only at the end does Panahi dare venture outside his home’s four walls, and even then he’s accompanied by the anxious warnings of a sympathetic bystander.
Censorship and totalitarianism provide the impetus for This Is Not a Film, but Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s “project” is about so much more. Though Panahi’s films have typically been less cerebral than those of his compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, there’s always been a bit of self-reflexivity coursing through his work. Indeed, modern Iranian cinema has made a habit of melding groundbreaking formal innovation with socially impassioned humanism, creating one of the most singular and vital cinematic communities in the world.
This article was originally published by the Walker Art Center (June 19, 2012). To read the rest of the article, click here.