Editors' pick

Iranian Film Festival

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Editorial Review

A quiet revolt of creativity in Iran
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan. 6, 2012

At Cannes last year, "This Is Not a Film," by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, arrived at the film festival by way of a USB thumb drive smuggled into France in a cake. At the Toronto International Film Festival a few months later, the conveyance was a loaf of bread.

But when "This Is Not a Film" arrived in Washington to kick off the Iranian Film Festival at the Freer and Sackler Galleries on Friday, no baked goods were involved. "I wish they had, because then I could have gotten some good cake," said the Freer and Sackler's film curator, Tom Vick. "But it came the usual way."

Since Toronto, "This Is Not a Film" has been picked up by a distributor and is due in theaters this spring. But the earlier subterfuge wasn't just hype: Panahi - whose films include "The White Balloon," "The Circle" and "Offside" - has been banned by the Iranian government from making films after his arrest in 2010 for planning to make a film about the 2009 presidential election. "This Is Not a Film" was made by Panahi and his friend, director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, on a digital camera and an iPhone over the course of several days.

Ostensibly a spontaneous "day in the life" look at Panahi's creative house arrest, the film is a deceptively complex project (which Panahi and Mirtahmasb call an "effort" in deference to the authorities). On the surface, it is simply an intimate portrait of a gentle family man and frustrated artist. But then it deepens into a meditation on creativity, an oblique tweak at an authoritarian system that can't fully squelch self-expression and an ingenious formal exercise blending fact, fiction, artifice and realism.

At one point in the film, Panahi asks Mirtahmasb to come over, then tells him about a story he has in mind, acting it out within a schematic, almost Brechtian set he constructs out of masking tape on the floor. After Panahi tells his colleague to "cut," Mirtahmasb reminds him that he's not supposed to direct.

Like many interludes in "This Is Not a Film," it's a mordantly funny exchange. But moments later, Panahi is in tears. "If we could tell a film, why make a film?" he asks. Then he proceeds to answer that philosophical question, filming what look like spontaneous visits from neighbors and conversations with his friend and finally venturing outside the building with a young porter in an exhilarating but ultimately stymied bid for creative, psychic and political freedom.

With its dual sense of imprisonment and subversion, "This Is Not a Film" feels of a kin with "A Separation," the astonishing domestic drama-cum-thriller by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that opens Jan. 20. In fact, Vick says he's noticed a trend in cramped, inward-turning narratives that mark a departure from the more expansive Iranian films of the 1990s, which often took place in the countryside or on the streets of Tehran.

"I think it's reflecting the current political situation," Vick suggests, "like a metaphor for how trapped filmmakers feel - not only with Panahi arrested, but two distributors I work with a lot in programming the festival have been arrested or shut down. There's definitely been a chill."

Vick added that at least two other films in the festival - "Goodbye," about a woman desperately navigating the Iranian bureaucracy as she tries to leave the country, and "Here Without Me," an adaptation of Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie" - hew to similar hemmed-in visual and thematic styles. (Like Panahi, "Goodbye's" director, Mohammad Rasoulof, was arrested and sentenced to prison for propagandizing against the regime.)

Still, even at their most suffocating, contemporary Iranian movies possess an unmistakable sense of freedom, as characters manage to create culturally cosmopolitan, self-expressive lives within the constraints of the revolutionary regime. Comparing the early films of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami that will play in the festival alongside last year's lesbian coming-of-age tale, "Circumstance," Vick notes that a sea change has occurred in the past decade, reflected in expanded acting styles and directors referencing Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar Wai.

"The Kiarostami style back in the 1990s was kind of hermetic, very Iranian," Vick says. "Now, through people's secret Internet connections and satellite dishes, they're seeing films and getting ideas from all over the world and smuggling them into their films, both in style and content. . . . It seems like the world is filtering in and filtering out."