Film as an Escape Route: Navigating Cinematic Freedom Under Confinement

Curator's Note

“Cinema is my expression and the meaning of my life. Nothing can prevent me from making films.” – Jafar Panahi

In his diaristic 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, Iranian director Jafar Panahi takes on the challenge of making a film (or is it just a digital video?), even as he is on house arrest and appealing his six-year prison sentence and twenty-year ban on filmmaking. To overcome the seizure of his extant footage and elude the state’s suppressive restrictions, his strategy is to reflexively question the ontological notions of film itself. Can he still read his screenplay on camera and describe it visually to the viewers? Can he document the mundane realities of his confinement if someone else holds the camera? Where does a film begin and end and who gets to make those determinations?

Such issues particularly materialize in one scene in which Panahi brings sections of his unproduced screenplay to life and stages a riveting movie within a movie. Establishing a kind of shadow topography, Panahi projects an alternative, imaginative architecture onto the surface of his living room. His rug becomes his protagonist’s home, pieces of masking tape delineate the walls of the bedroom she inhabits, and a pillow symbolizes her bed. As the director excitedly details the angles and durations of shots he envisions and even embodies the character's actions, it is clear that his spatial and legal constraints have not dampened his need to create. He also exhibits shaky smartphone footage that he shot of the real location in Isfahan, employing another form of recording (which may or may not qualify as a film) to transport viewers to a parallel mediated space and expand this shared cinematic life-world.

Therefore, by tactically playing with the definitional boundaries of filmmaking, Panahi finds a dimension of liberation in his unjust arrest. By taking severe risks and arranging for This is Not a Film to be smuggled out of Iran, he also ultimately makes his project a testament to the enduring power of film. While cinema, like any other medium, can be manipulated, repressed, or marginalized, the reflexivity of this documentary dares to dig up new escape routes and, in the process, revitalizes the potentialities of dissident art and cinematic metacriticism.


Thank you, Daniel, for leaving us on such an inspiring note with this post about "the enduring power of film." Not to conflate the very real dangers that Panahi faces with more benign modes of censorship and control, I find his way of using restrictions to inventive ends reminiscent of Dogma's Vow of Chastity, and, more broadly, figuratively indicative of the risks any filmmaker takes when resisting regulatory regimes of content and style. Your post also provokes me to think further about my own reference to films whose characters are spatially entrapped but cinematically liberated.

Thanks so much for this Daniel. I also have a strong investment in this remarkable work. For me, one of the really fascinating things about THIS IS NOT A FILM is the way Panahi insists so vehemently on focusing on cinema in spite of and instead of the urgent nature of his predicament; and how, in turn, his attempts to avoid the legalities of the situation are always thwarted. The realities of his case keep creeping back into view in literal (the phone calls), suggestive (the paranoid moment with the trash collector), and metaphorical ways (the animals seem to hold a symbolic value related perhaps to the surveillant nature of Tehran). It seems to me that this struggle between life and cinema is one of the key themes that unites all our concerns this week, and rarely is it explored/demonstrated (this dilemma in word choice is another symptom of the work's indefinability) more strikingly than THIS IS NOT A FILM.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.